Postwar Gaza: Scars frozen, Mideast at an impasse

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2009 1:36 PM

Gaza's scars have been frozen in place since Israel waged war a year ago to subdue Hamas and stop rockets from hitting its towns. Entire neighborhoods still lie in rubble, and traumatized residents can't rebuild their lives.

A man who lost two daughters and his home can't visit his surviving 4-year-old girl in a Belgian hospital because Gaza's borders remain sealed. A 15-year-old struggles to walk on her artificial limbs, while dozens of other war amputees still await prostheses.

Couples postpone marriage because not enough apartments survived three weeks of bombing and shelling. Thousands are homeless,and damaged systems mean electricity and water are sporadic. Untreated sewage pours into the Mediterranean.

A three-year-old blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt makes any large-scale rebuilding impossible, because the embargo includes steel and concrete.

The unprecedented use of Israeli firepower against the Palestinians has had repercussions far beyond the pain inflicted on Gaza's long-suffering 1.5 million people.

It emboldened Gaza's Hamas rulers by failing to topple them, and weakened their Western-backed Fatah rivals, whom Palestinians increasingly see as subordinate to Israel. It deepened the political split between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-governed West Bank, making a unified Palestinian government _ a prerequisite for any peace deal _ even less likely.

Israel largely succeeded in stopping the rocket fire, and its towns and villages that lived under constant threat have blossomed. But the quiet is fragile, and the screams of Palestinian civilians and bloody scenes in Gaza that filled TV sets and Web sites worldwide badly damaged Israel's international standing.

By the time a cease-fire took effect Jan. 18, more than 1,400 Gazans had been killed, among them hundreds of civilians, along with 13 Israelis.

A U.N. fact-finding team and international human rights groups accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians. Both sides have denied wrongdoing.

Israeli politicians and generals must think twice before traveling abroad in case activist groups seek their arrest for alleged war crimes. Tzipi Livni had to cancel a London trip this month because she was foreign minister during the war and faced an arrest warrant.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are coming under tougher European criticism, and a Palestinian-led campaign to boycott goods made in settlements has gained momentum.

President Barack Obama's hopes of jump-starting peace talks have made no visible headway.

Israel insists it acted in self-defense after eight years of rocket fire, and most Israelis supported the war. Their hawkish mood helped right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu win an election months after the cease-fire.

For Gazans, prospects of a better life are dim. The only ones prospering seem to be Hamas politicians and smugglers tunneling under the sealed borders. A flattened neighborhood close to Israel still looks as if the war ended yesterday.

There, on a recent morning, young men hammered twisted metal out of mountains of broken concrete to be sold for small building ventures by those who are determined to start over with what they have.

Gaza businessman Emad Khaldi uses mud bricks and ancient techniques, such as domed roofs that don't require steel support. He has completed one home and is building another.

"We say to Israel, we can create alternative houses from nothing," said construction foreman Mahmoud Bader, 38. His team is building the mud brick home of a 44-year-old mother of nine who lost her house in the war and lives in a fly-infested shack of corrugated metal.

The main U.N. aid agency in Gaza has ordered 120 such Arabesque-style homes for the displaced. But the housing crunch, in one of the world's most crowded places, has dashed the wedding plans of 30-year-old Mohammed Jaradeh. His fiancee's family forced her to break off the engagement.

"I had managed to build one room and utilities on the roof of my family's house, which cost me $7,000, but my fiancee's family didn't accept that," he said.

For Khaled Abed Rabbo, rebuilding his family home is the least of his problems.

On Jan. 7, as Israeli tanks rumbled through his neighborhood, soldiers ordered him, his wife, mother and four children to leave the house, he said. After the women and children emerged waving a white cloth, a soldier opened fire, killing 2-year-old Amal and 7-year-old Soad, while 4-year-old Samar was left paralyzed, Abed Rabbo said.

Samar has been in Belgium for treatment for the past year accompanied by Abed Rabbo's wife, while he stayed behind with his 7-year-old son in a rented Gaza apartment.

Israel denies its soldiers targeted civilians but is investigating some of the allegations. The military said it is still investigating Abed Rabbo's case and cannot comment further.

The father wants to travel to Belgium to see his wife and child. But Hamas told him he is not on the list of hardship cases allowed out of Gaza when Egypt opens its border every few months.

Among Gaza's estimated 5,300 war wounded, amputees are particularly hard hit. Hazem Shawa, who runs the territory's only prosthetics center, said he has fitted 76 patients, while 174 are waiting.

Jamila Habash, 15, was given artificial limbs in Saudi Arabia, but they didn't fit well. She tried on a new pair last week at Shawa's center, struggling to hold on to parallel bars as she hobbled forward.

"I miss walking, to move wherever I want, alone, without the help of others," she said.

Hamas, which seized Gaza Strip in 2007 by driving out its Western-backed rival Fatah, has taken the war as a victory over Israel and has tightened its grip with arrests, threats against political rivals and occasional "virtue campaigns" to promote Islamic morality.

Hamas outpolled Fatah in a general election four years ago, and the West Bank and Gaza were supposed to have another vote in six months but that seems unlikely to happen because of the Hamas-Fatah split.

There's no telling whether Hamas would win again, and in the postwar gloom enveloping Gaza, a popular uprising against the militants seems unlikely.

Privately, some Gazans grumble that Hamas politicians act just like the Fatah government, removed from public concerns, riding fancy cars. Yet Hamas was also able to mobilize tens of thousand this month for an anniversary rally marking the group's founding. Many Gazans are exhausted by conflict, resent Israel more than they do Hamas, or believe the militants' tough stance is the only dignity they have left.

A prisoner swap could lift the blockade, which was imposed after Hamas-allied militants captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, in 2006 and was tightened after Hamas seized Gaza a year later.

"Israel lost the war," said Khalil al-Hayeh, a Hamas leader. "Israel said it wants to destroy Hamas, but today ... we are more powerful."

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Additional reporting by Rizek Abdel Jawad in Gaza City.