Four weeks after the end of the war between Hamas and Israel, talks between Palestinians and Israel are set to take place this week in Cairo. In Gaza, people are desperate to rebuild their homes and lives.
The fish market right next to the small port in Gaza City is a hive of activity early in the morning. Now that fishermen are allowed to sail further out to sea - up to six nautical miles - the variety of fish they catch has increased slightly. To many in Gaza, this concession was the only visible achievement of the war which ended almost four weeks ago. But fishermen had hoped for more: "We need 12 miles to really make a living from fishing again," says veteran fisherman Ibrahim Salem Abu Sadeh. "But we got six miles instead. It is still better than nothing, what can we do?" he says with a half smile.
Almost four weeks into the ceasefire that ended the war, many Gazans wonder what will happen next in a situation that remains complicated. "If you look at the situation in Gaza now, it is definitely much worse than the situation that existed before the war started," says Mkhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst at the Al Azhar University. "Before, Gaza was politically isolated, it was suffering from high levels of unemployment, poverty and severe economic problems due to the siege, but now Gaza will have to deal with all of that in addition to the devastation and destruction which was inflicted by Israel and now it seems nothing is changing."
The third war in six years between Hamas and Israel lasted seven weeks and was the deadliest for the 1.8 million people of the tiny coastal enclave. More than 2,000 Palestinians, among them 500 children, were killed. Whole neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. According to UN estimates, around 18,000 private homes were totally destroyed and an estimated 100,000 people could end up permanently homeless. With the cold season around the corner, people who lost their homes are wondering where they will live. Some have rented apartments, some stay in makeshift tents next to the rubble of their homes or are still taking shelter at UN schools. So far, only construction materials that existed before the war are available on the local market. They are scarce and are just enough to repair broken doors or shattered windows, but are not nearly adequate to rebuild a home. Israel continues to restrict entry of construction materials to Gaza for fear that they may be used by Hamas and other militant groups to build tunnels.
Lack of material
Mohammed Shinbari, a 29-year old from Beit Hanoun, now lives with the rest of his family in a makeshift tent next to the rubble of his badly damaged house. "To tell you the truth, I have no idea what to do now and where to start. Except for food coupons, we haven't had much help so far," he says. Other families whose homes were destroyed received $2,000 each from Hamas, as temporary assistance. But his family didn't get any compensation, he says. The family is now waiting for engineers to assess the damage of the house. But not even the clean-up of the area has started.
Last week, however, a deal between the Israeli authorities, the UN and the Palestinian Authority to bring in the necessary construction materials was announced. But implementation details remain unclear. "When you look into people's faces now, one can see clearly the despair and disbelief," says political scientist Usama Antar, whose building was also hit during the war. "Only now, everybody starts to realize the lasting impact of this war on their lives."
The gravity of the situation also weighs on Hamas which claimed victory after the 52-day war. Opinion polls published just after the fighting ended showed soaring support for Hamas, a pattern common with polls after the two previous wars. But this popularity might not last, observers say, since it will depend on what can be achieved between Palestinians and Israel once Egyptian-brokered indirect talks resume in Cairo.
Some even fear that fighting might erupt again since Israel seems to be in no hurry to open up Gaza's borders, one of Hamas' main demands to end the blockade. "We are not interested to have more battles, but certainly the coming weeks will show where we are heading," says Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas leader. "We have enough to take care of now. The priority is how to re-house the people, to ease the tension with the Egyptians and to ease the suffering of the people." But, he also says that it is Israel that holds the key for opening the borders in order to let construction materials in and to lift the siege.
New tensions between Hamas and Fatah
Prospects of Gaza's reconstruction are complicated by tensions between Hamas and Fatah which have resurfaced in the aftermath of the war. Technically, Hamas dissolved its government after the new transitional government was established in June. However, it retains tight control over security and administration in Gaza and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Hamas of running a shadow government there.
Hamas officials in Gaza say that the Palestinian Authority has not shown interest in coming to Gaza in order to assume its responsibilities. "We cannot leave the Gaza Strip in a vacuum," says Ahmed Youssef. "I say, come and test the will of Hamas, if they are serious or not, but you have to come to Gaza and not just to claim from Ramallah that Hamas runs a shadow government." Leaders from the rival Fatah party in Gaza say that talks with Hamas are set to take place soon. "It is easy if they own the house, they can invite people, they still think they rule Gaza and can invite the other to come to Gaza," Fatah leader Faisal Abu Shahla says. "They should comply with the new government and with the spirit of reconciliation."
Observers believe that international donors will be reluctant to finance Gaza's reconstruction if the Palestinian Authority is not in charge there - most Western countries don't deal directly with Hamas, which is listed as terror group. For Gaza, this represents an additional obstacle to an already lengthy recovery. "Where is the government? For eight years there was a government and we were blockaded. Now we have a so-called government of national consensus. Where are they? They just fight with each other," says Munther, a young father from Beit Hanoun who walks on crutches after he was injured during the war.
For now, Gazans will have to wait and hope that the upcoming diplomatic efforts between Hamas and Fatah and Palestinians and Israelis yield concrete results.