Winter brings misery to Gaza war homeless

SHAFAQNA – As the wind whistles through gaping holes in her ruined house, 62-year-old Souad al-Zaza and her daughter huddle together for warmth on a bed made of a wooden door on breeze blocks.

“I wake up cold, I sleep on the bed, afraid that it will break. I’m covered with two blankets that we were given,” she says as rain drips through the ceiling inside the wreckage of her home in Gaza City’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood. “Before the war, I was happy, safe, comfortable in my life and now we are living in the middle of this destruction.”

Three months after an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire ended a bloody 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants, more than 100,000 Gazans remain homeless and the much-hyped reconstruction has yet to begin.

And a fierce winter storm which has battered the region since Monday has brought further misery to tens of thousands of Palestinian families who are living in temporary shelters or in the rubble of their destroyed homes.

In Shujaiyeh, one of the worst-hit neighborhoods where huge areas were reduced to rubble by Israeli tank fire, there is no sign of any construction. But there are still those desperate enough to return home.

Ibtisam al-Ijla, 46, sits on a filthy, battered sofa in the blackened shell of her former home as her husband huddles in the corner, prodding at a fire, their only source of heating.

Corrugated iron sheets cover holes in the front wall, and wires hold up dirty blankets to create a thin illusion of privacy.

“I’m really worried about the weather but there is nothing that I can do about it,” she tells AFP before the full force of the storm hits.

She and her husband fled barefoot at the height of the bombardment only to return to ruins.

With no money to rent elsewhere, they were forced to move back in.

Grubby bedding lies on the floor. Draughty and exposed to the driving rain, the house has no front door, no electricity and no running water.

The toilet is completely open to the crater of rubble out back.

“Being here reminds me of my old life, of my neighbors who used to live here and are now gone. In the past, we would all sit together with family and friends,” she says. “Now I’m almost completely alone.”

Around 30 percent of homes in the territory of 1.8 million people are damaged or destroyed.

The United Nations brokered a deal under which Israel agreed to ease its 8-year-old blockade to allow in formerly-banned construction supplies, but little has got through yet.

Twenty-eight trucks of cement entered Gaza from Israel Tuesday in only the second delivery for the private sector since the war.

A foreign diplomatic source said the U.N.-brokered mechanism for delivering materials had “taken longer than anticipated” to get up and running.

Palestinian Housing Minister Mufid Hasayneh said Tuesday’s delivery was “positive” but fell far short of what was needed.

“Israel is responsible for this. They control the crossing and the raw materials needed for reconstruction but they are only letting small quantities through,” Hasayneh told AFP.

He said at least 7,000 tons a day are required if Gaza is to be rebuilt within three years.

Few Gazans believe that even that long timeframe will be achieved. Most have lost faith that reconstruction will ever materialize.

Even those with a solid roof over their heads are struggling.

In Khuzaa – an area near the southern city of Khan Younes that suffered a fate similar to Shujaiyeh – 48 families are living in container homes donated as emergency accommodations by the United Arab Emirates.

“We’ve got it better than a lot of people,” admits Sawsan al-Najjar, 34. But it is far from ideal.

“The container absorbs both cold and heat – it gets very cold in winter and very hot in summer. When it rains, it sinks,” says her husband Farraj, 43.

The patch of land where the homes were installed lies in a natural dip and it flooded during the first winter rains last month.

The rains also overwhelmed the communal cesspit, sending sewage back up the pipes and out of the toilets. The United Nations has since provided sandbags to block the worst of the flooding.

“Listening to the news, we realize we’re likely to be here for a very long time,” he shrugs.

Mohammad al-Hilu, 62, is hunched over an industrial sewing machine, making tents to help the homeless get through the winter.

“The occupation will finish before we see reconstruction here,” he sniffs.

“The Jews are stupid to put pressure on us because it only pushes us toward resistance. They try to force us into a narrow space but the pressure will cause an explosion.”

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