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Story Publication logo January 23, 2009

Rebuilding Gaza Beset by Hamas


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Inside Gaza

Gazan healthcare facilities have been strangled by an Israeli blockade since June 2007, when Hamas...

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Mohammad Awad was so happy when the lights came back on that he didn't want to go bed.

A trickle of electricity started flowing into Gaza City four days ago after Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire. Gazans such as Mr. Awad, 23, an engineering student, are relishing the whir of refrigerators and the distraction of television - conveniences they had to live without during three weeks of Israeli bombardment.

But the rejoicing is tempered by recognition that the task of rebuilding is daunting and complicated by the refusal of many nations, including the United States, to deal directly with the territory's battered ruler, Hamas.

Israel announced Wednesday that it had withdrawn all its ground forces from Gaza, although Israeli navy ships fired machine-gun rounds at beaches in northern Gaza.

Both sides have declared victory in the conflict. On Tuesday, thousands of Hamas supporters, wearing green headbands, ball caps and tracksuits, rallied in front what was once Gaza´s legislative building, bombed to bits on the first day of the war.

"The whole world, even the Arab world, says that Hamas has been destroyed," said Sheik Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas leader. "But we say Hamas will stay alive. We will be stronger than before."

Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that Hamas is rounding up suspected collaborators with Israel, including supporters of the rival Fatah faction that governs in the West Bank.

Gazan civilians and representatives of international aid groups say they are most worried about how Hamas will manage the aftermath of a conflict that killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians - more than half of them civilians, according to local health authorities and the United Nations - and reduced hundreds of buildings to rubble.

"I´ll tell you frankly, this time is the worst I´ve ever seen,"said Salah Sakka, regional director of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), a U.S. charity that delivers medical supplies to Gaza´s hospitals and provides food and hygiene items to its citizens. ANERA was able to bring about 100 tons of aid through land ports on the Israeli border during the three-week war, Mr. Sakka said, but Gazans need much more.

The outgoing Bush administration promised $85 million in additional aid to the Palestinians but channeled the money through U.N. entities and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank but not Gaza. The idea is that Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party, not Hamas, will get credit.

President Obama continued the pattern of seeking to bolster Mr. Abbas by making him the first foreign leader he called after taking office.

"He used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term, and to express his hope for their continued cooperation and leadership," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

It was not clear whether Mr. Obama offered any additional aid for Gaza's reconstruction.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the source of U.S. aid, mandates a "no contact" policy with regard to Hamas, which the State Department has labeled a terrorist group. This policy bars organizations that receive USAID funding, such as ANERA, from working through Gaza´s Hamas-run ministries, complicating relief efforts.

"The biggest problem is financing," Mr. Sakka said. "People are eager to rebuild, but they don´t have any funds, and we can´t work through the ministries to distribute them." Restrictions on trade with Gaza also limit access to building materials such as concrete, steel and glass, Mr. Sakka said.

The crossings between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt have been closed to imports of all but the most basic necessities since Hamas took over the teeming enclave in 2007. Intensive Israeli bombing along the Egyptian border has largely shut down a tunnel network used to circumvent the blockade.

To bolster the cease-fire, the United States and its European allies have pledged to help stem arms smuggling. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to Brussels on Wednesday to finalize a deal with the European Union for forces, ships and technology to back up this effort, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabalya, within sight of Israel´s lush western farmland, refugees are returning to find homes flattened and fields ravaged by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. The decaying carcasses of sheep and smashed chickens litter the landscape and the smell of death hangs in the air.

"This attack was different," said Moufid Abu Eida, 45, whose family owned four concrete plants in Jabalya before the war. "This time, they destroyed everything - people, plants, even stones." Mr. Eida said the Israeli air force leveled the family's factories and homes and estimated a total of $3 million in damages.

Israeli officials counter that they attacked sites to destroy Hamas' ability to target Israeli civilians with rockets - the reason they started the offensive, they say. But the most comprehensive damage to Palestinian civilian structures occurred in areas close to the borders with Israel and Egypt, where residents say there were no Hamas fighters. Mr. Eida, who said that his supports Fatah, swore that no Hamas militants were near his home in an open field about three miles from downtown Gaza City.

Within the first week of the war, Israeli bombing wiped out nearly all of Gaza´s police stations and government buildings, which Israel declared legitimate targets because of their affiliation with Hamas. The bombing also destroyed power plants and irrigation systems.

Israeli forces also hit the American International School in Gaza City and a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the northern town of Beit Lahia, where about 1,600 Gazans had sought refuge. The Israeli military said the schools were serving as launch sites for rockets, but school officials have denied the claim. U.N. authorities have demanded an investigation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Awad said he won´t return to his studies any time soon. Israeli rockets destroyed the library at the Islamic University of Gaza, where he studied industrial engineering.

"The Israelis said people were using the laboratories in the library to design weapons," Mr. Awad said, vehemently denying that was the case.

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