With Thousands Left Homeless, Gaza Reconstruction Faces Familiar Obstacle: Israeli Siege

In the shadow of the Israel-Hamas cease-fire, thousands of Gazan residents face homelessness, grief, and trauma — amid a continuing Israeli blockade.

BEIT HANOUN, GAZA - MAY 24:  A Palestinian girl stands amid the rubble of her destroyed home on May 24, 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. Gaza residents continue clean up operations as they return to damaged and destroyed homes as the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appeared to be holding into a fourth day. The ceasefire brings to an end 11 days of fighting which left dead more than 250 Palestinians - many of them women and children - and 13 Israelis. The conflict began on May 10 after rising tensions in East Jerusalem and clashes at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. (Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images)
A Palestinian child stands surrounded by rubble after a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza fighters, in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, on May 22, 2021. Photo: Fatima Shbair/Getty Images

BEIT HANOUN, GAZA — In the first days of Israeli shelling, Mohammed Ghabayne and his family tried to stay in their house, just 300 meters from the barrier that separated the occupied Gaza Strip from Israel. Ghabayne was unsure when and where to flee.

By the fourth night of shelling, the war hit home.

“Each day it got rougher, just unstoppable shelling from the ground,” said Ghabayne, “and the sky.” He went on, “We felt the shaking of the house and the sounds of bombing very loud and close. We have no shelters here, as the Israelis have, so we just wait in fear.”

Around 11 p.m., without any warning, Ghabayne’s neighborhood came under bombardment. “We are sitting at the house and started hearing random shelling,” he recalled. “Then, in like 4 minutes, our entire area is under attack — it felt like 50 bombs in an instant.”

“Then, in the dark, we all escaped shoeless in the streets, not knowing where to go.”

When Ghabayne and his family emerged, shards of glass covered their floor. He quickly discovered that Israeli airstrikes had not only damaged his home, but also those of his nearby family members. His grandfather’s home had also been scarred, but his cousin’s, just 50 meters away, had been hardest hit, killing the cousin, his wife, and three of their children.

In the black of night, with the electricity out, Ghabayne and his neighbors frantically scrambled through the rubble to pull his cousin’s remaining, now-orphaned children from the concrete ruins. The task at hand took primacy over the fear of another round of Israeli shelling.

“Then, in the dark, we all escaped shoeless in the streets, not knowing where to go,” Ghabayne told The Intercept from the courtyard of one of the emergency shelters set up in a United Nations school. “We came here because we have no place to go.”

Costs of War

Ghabayne and his family were among the nearly 80,000 Gazans, including 30,000 children, forced to flee their homes during the 11-day bombardment. His is one of more than 17,000 homes destroyed or damaged in the recent war. At least 9,000 Gazan residents have been left homeless or displaced.

With Gazans taking stock of the destruction and death toll, human rights advocates and the international community are turning their eyes toward rebuilding in the Strip and accountability for the attacks. With three past rounds of escalated Israeli attacks on Gaza over a decade and a half, it’s a familiar cycle that will face familiar obstacles — not least the Israeli siege of Gaza and the geopolitics of control by the militant Palestinian political faction Hamas. For Gazans like Ghabayne, the future in the Strip is itself a kind of barefoot wandering in the dark, seeking the next shelter, however precarious it may be.

“They are grieving — for loved ones they’ve just lost, family members and children who are gone, and for their homes and possessions in ruins. They’re in shock and despair over a life that they will mourn forever,” said Sherine Tadros of Amnesty International. “And then to step back, now what, that this round is over? Will the Gaza siege be lifted? We have three examples that tell us no, so this is what Gazans have in front of them.”

The costs of the war in human lives are only beginning to come into focus. In the 11-day flare-up, at least 254 Gazans, including 66 children, were killed and nearly 2,000 were injured by Israeli airstrikes, using U.S.-made warplanes and bombs. Twelve Israelis, including two children, were killed by rockets fired by Gazan militants. On Tuesday, Gaza’s Ministry of Health said that 19 Palestinian families had been killed wholesale — “wiped off the civil registry,” according to a release.

Both the U.N. and Gaza’s government have stated that the total financial cost of damages may not be known for weeks. On Thursday, the U.N. launched an initial emergency funding appeal for the Gazan reconstruction to a world already depressed by donor fatigue from the coronavirus pandemic.

GAZA CITY, GAZA - MAY 22: Palestinians sit amongst the rubble of their destroyed houses after a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza fighters, in Beit Hanun, northern Gaza Strip, on May 22, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appeared to be holding, despite fresh clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. The ceasefire brings to an end eleven days of fighting which killed more than 250 Palestinians, many of them women and children, and 13 Israelis. The conflict began on May 10th after rising tensions in East Jerusalem and clashes at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. (Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images)

Palestinians sit among the rubble of their destroyed houses after a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza fighters, in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, on May 22, 2021.

Photo: Fatima Shbair/Getty Images

On Tuesday in Ramallah, the de facto seat of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a $110 million aid package to the Palestinians, including $5.5 million in emergency relief for Gaza. (The Biden administration had already reinstated U.S. funding to UNRWA, the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency, that had been cut during the Trump administration.)

“A 12-year-old in Gaza has lived only under a siege and now through four wars.”

“We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” Blinken said, sitting alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his trip to the West Bank. “And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild.”

Even as these diplomatic efforts get underway, though, parallel to calls for human rights investigations, little seems poised to change in the financial and physical control Israel exerts over Gaza — and the lasting obstacle of isolation and blockade imposed against its people.

Tadros, of Amnesty, said, “A 12-year-old in Gaza has lived only under a siege and now through four wars.”

Politics Threatens Aid

The political realities of Washington and the logistical interference of the 13-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the tiny coastal enclave remain firmly in place.

Legally, the administration cannot deal directly with the government of Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. On Monday, a State Department official said aid would be channeled through the U.N. and Palestinian Authority, but such moves routinely face opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have cut off aid through both channels in the past.

On the ground, the siege has kept the majority of Gaza’s crossings closed for over a decade, with only three crossings — two with Israel and one with Egypt — open sporadically based on Israel Defense Forces and Egyptian military decisions.

“The escalation has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, generated by nearly 14 years of blockade and internal political divisions, alongside recurrent hostilities,” said Lynn Hastings, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territories, in a Sunday statement. “The generous support of our donor partners from all regions is essential, as is unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel and provision to those in need. We must all do our part.”

After each previous war, Israel’s siege restrictions have kneecapped reconstruction, prolonging the misery of Gazan civilians. The IDF categorizes necessary construction materials, like concrete and steel, as “dual-use items” — products that could be used for civilian or military purposes — and places heavy limitations on their import to the Strip.

In the first six months following the last war, Israel allowed only a fraction of the $5.4 billion pledge for Gaza’s reconstruction to reach Gazans. The restrictions left approximately 100,000 Gazans displaced through the winter and prompted 30 aid organizations to collectively demand that Israel comply with its international legal obligations.


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Beyond the cycles of reconstruction, the Israeli siege has intentionally placed a stranglehold on Gazan civilians and their economy. At the outset, Israeli officials described the restrictions as designed “to put Palestinians on a diet,” even calculating the minimal caloric intake to keep Gazans from starving to determine a “daily humanitarian portion” that would be allowed into Gaza. Since then, the IDF has at times restricted such products as food, sanitary items, school supplies, and medicine.

The devastating controls on the movement of people, goods, and supplies brought the Gazan economy to its knees and transformed the Strip into what’s often called “the world’s largest open-air prison.” For more than a decade, Gaza’s 2 million residents have been trapped under the thumb of this cruel system of collective punishment with no end in sight.

Then come the attacks. Israel has demonstrated that it will not shy away from provocations, and Hamas can be relied upon to respond with rudimentary missile fire toward Israeli population centers. Unless dynamics dramatically shift, it’s a cycle that’s likely to repeat. The brunt of whatever escalation comes next will likely be felt by families, like the Ghabaynes, for whom even the shelters of international aid are little comfort.

Tadros, the Amnesty official, pointed to a pattern, across the four wars, of Israel announcing evacuation orders, with presumed bombings to follow, for U.N.-run schools acting as shelters. She said, “When Gazans seek refuge — and I say ‘refuge’ because it’s not a safe place, it’s just the safest place they can think of — they are not just sitting there with their families waiting it out.”

BEIT HANOUN, GAZA - MAY 25: Mohammad Recep, 17, plays to enjoy children on rubble of destroyed buildings targeted by Israeli attacks, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza on May 25, 2021. A ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas was reached following 11 days of the worst fighting between the two sides in recent years. (Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Mohammad Recep, 17, juggles to entertain children among the rubble of destroyed buildings targeted by Israeli attacks, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, on May 25, 2021.

Photo: Abed Zagout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Eid Deferred

Ghabayne and his family were able to return to their Beit Hanoun home after the cease-fire was announced a week ago. As with many Gazans, the cease-fire was a mix of relief and grief. On the evening after it went into effect, people flooded the streets in the early hours of Friday morning.

It was not lost on many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that the latest Israeli assault had coincided with the final days of Ramadan. Many families tried to provide their children with a delayed celebration: a celebration of survival, more than the specific holiday. The usual sites for festivities, like the seaport and commercial districts, lay in ruins thanks to Israeli airstrikes. Instead, parents gave their children balloons, with backdrops of collapsed buildings and emergency teams.

The Ghabaynes had been lucky enough to survive but not lucky enough to celebrate it. Instead, like other families, the past six days were consumed by grief, loss, and the hard labor of salvaging their homes, businesses, and property.

“For my family, for all of Gaza, our holiday was only the bombings, the martyrs, the injuries. Only bloodshed.”

The Ghabaynes spent their days making funeral arrangements and gathering what was left of their homes — all while mourning the tragedy of lost family members and making arrangements for their orphaned nieces and nephews.

“The whole world celebrated a happy Eid Al-Fitr, except us,” Mohammed Ghabayne said. “For my family, for all of Gaza, our holiday was only the bombings, the martyrs, the injuries. Only bloodshed.”

On Tuesday in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Blinken and the Biden administration for “firmly supporting Israel’s right of self-defense.”

For Ghabayne, the word “defense” rankles, as his family mourns their loved ones and extended members shelter in his damaged Beit Hanoun home.

“What the Israelis call ‘defense’ is not defense! We need the world to help us defend our families and homes against the occupation,” Ghabayne said. “We have been enduring this siege and occupation for a long time. We just wish that we Palestinians can finally live with a little peace. We don’t want wars, we don’t want occupation, we just want our families to live in a free Palestine.”

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