Gazans View Scale of Destruction

Gaza's only cement packing factory is now a giant scrap heap, its towering silo tilting precariously. The owner's villa was pounded by Israeli tank shells until it resembled Swiss cheese.

With a cease-fire taking hold Monday, Gazans got their first close look at the widespread destruction across their crowded territory.

The first estimates by independent surveyors said Gaza lost nearly $2 billion in assets during Israel's three-week war on Hamas, including 4,100 homes, about 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques, 31 security compounds, and 10 water or sewage lines.

Many Gazans seemed overwhelmed, saying they didn't even know where to start with the cleanup.

East of Gaza City, a three-story apartment building owned by the Alami family had been shredded by tank shells.

Iyad Alami, an accountant, said he was to have moved into the newly built third-floor apartment next month, after spending $50,000 on construction. He said he doesn't have the strength to think about rebuilding after saving for his new home for eight years.

"The situation is very hard," he said.

Moussa Saber, a 64-year old economics professor, inspected his damaged Gaza City apartment for the first time Monday, glass shards crunching under his feet. He turned on the tap of the bathtub, and to his relief water came out. Yet his home is uninhabitable, with doors and windows blown out by bombings of Hamas' main government complex across the street.

Saudi Arabia on Monday pledged $1 billion for Gaza's reconstruction, and the international community has promised massive help.

However, many here are skeptical money will actually arrive. They fear the rebuilding efforts will be held up by the bitter rivalry between Hamas and its moderate West Bank rivals led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel is also expected to keep tight control over the flow of financial assistance, to make sure aid money does not strengthen Hamas.

Even those who have money to rebuild on their own can't get basic materials such as cement, wood or glass. Shortages were widespread in Gaza even before the war, due to the blockade on the territory imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas' violent takeover in June 2007.

On Monday, the first full day of a mutual cease-fire, Gaza City almost appeared back to its chaotic normalcy, with cars backed up behind slow-moving donkey carts and Hamas police whistling and gesturing to keep traffic flowing across major intersections.

Many people were busy cleaning up and collecting the basics.

The muezzin of the Abbas Mosque in Gaza City's middle-class Rimal neighborhood wore plastic flip-flops and rolled up his pants as he shoveled debris from the sidewalk. Tow trucks moved flattened cars.

Homeowners digging through rubble carried off vases, refrigerators, dishes and baby beds, some loading their goods into cars and trucks. Children carried plastic bags of scrap metal to be sold or recycled.

Meanwhile, utility crews began planning repairs to electrical and sewage and water systems. A senior technician, Mofid Awad, said 80 percent of the electricity grid in Gaza City was damaged.

Power, water and sewage systems had been badly disrupted even before the war, largely because of Israel's move in November to tighten the border to pressure Hamas to halt rocket fire on southern Israel.

With little fuel coming in, water and sewage pumps broke down, and Gaza's main power station operated only intermittently, leading to widespread blackouts and shortages of running water.

During the war, six water wells were damaged or destroyed, disrupting the flow of water to an additional 200,000 of Gaza's 1.4 million people, said Monther Shobak, a top official in Gaza's water authority. In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, close to the Israeli border, sewage seeped into the damaged water line.

Shobak and Awad said they could restore water and electricity networks in a matter of weeks, provided Israel allows spare parts to be brought in.

However, that's a big if. Even during the shaky six-month cease-fire that preceded the war, Israel eased the restrictions only slightly, reluctant to strengthen Hamas rule with a free flow of goods.

Israel planned to keep tight control over what is allowed into Gaza. Authorities will wait for damage assessments by international aid groups and then consider requests.

"We are not looking to give Hamas a prize," said Peter Lerner, an official in the Israeli military. "There are limits, and the priority is food supplies."

Even so, Hamas is hoping that a more permanent cease-fire deal under discussion will result in the opening of Gaza's crossing into Egypt.

Overall, the damage so far amounts to about $1.9 billion, according to separate surveys conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and by a Palestinian economic development council that serves as a liaison between the Abbas government and donor countries. Both are based in the West Bank.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, head of the development council, said damage to infrastructure alone amounted to about $200 million. Even under ideal conditions, with Israel and Egypt lifting the blockade and Hamas and Abbas settling their difference, rebuilding could take three to five years, he said.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said told reporters at U.N. headquarters Monday that Gaza needs financial aid and U.N. staff in Gaza are trying "to find out as much as they can about how great the damage is and how great the needs are."

"I think on the purely humanitarian and early recovery side ... it will be hundreds of million of dollars," he said, "and no doubt the overall reconstruction costs will be numbered in billions of dollars, but I wouldn't want to put a figure on it beyond that."

Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, on Monday urged Hamas to quickly form a joint government that would oversee the rebuilding. He argued that working together on reconstruction could pave the way for a broader power-sharing deal.

However, Hamas appeared cool to the proposal, which would require it to relinquish substantial control over Gaza to its rivals. Instead, Hamas civil servants have started making the rounds, taking down names of Gazans who suffered losses — though the inspectors did not hold out a promise of financial aid.

"Despite the size of the destruction and despite the war, we are still functioning," said Ehab Ghussein, spokesman of Hamas' Interior Ministry.

In Kuwait, Arab countries held an economic summit and discussed aid to Gaza. The Saudi king said his country's $1 billion donation would go to a proposed fund Arabs are setting up to rebuild the seaside territory.

Kuwait's emir also announced that the oil-rich U.S. ally was making a donation of $34 million to the United Nation's agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees.

However, Arab pledges of financial support to the Palestinians have not always materialized.

For the Abu Jiba family, which lost its cement packaging factory and adjacent three-story villa during the final days of Israel's ground offensive, the political wrangling does not bode well. The family is out $10 million, the approximate value of the factory and the home.

"We don't know yet if they (government officials) will rebuild, or if it's just talk in the media," said Atta Abu Jiba, 24, a son of the owner. "We have a government here and a government in Ramallah (in the West Bank), and we don't know whom to ask."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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