GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Undeterred by scorching heat, Palestinian workers in Gaza on Thursday hammered nails into wooden boards and jolted steel bars as they lay the foundations for the first group of homes to be rebuilt since the war with Israel last summer. The work brought a rare glimmer of hope to a territory that remains devastated a year after the fighting.
The long-awaited reconstruction started in Shijaiyah, one of Gaza's areas that was hardest hit during the 50-day war between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group.
"Thank God!" said Sharif Harara, 50, who stood under the sun as the workers laid the foundation of his new residence. "After a year of suffering in rental homes, our God brought his mercy."
Last year's fighting was the third and most devastating war between the bitter enemies since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival Palestinian Authority, dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party. Over 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side were killed in the fighting.
The war also destroyed 11,900 homes and damaged about 140,000 dwellings, according to the Palestinian Minister of Public Works Mufeed al-Hasayneh, whose ministry oversees the rebuilding.
One year later, thousands of houses with minor or moderate damage have been repaired under strict guidelines agreed to by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But so far, no new homes have been built to replace those that were completely destroyed.
Reconstruction efforts have also been hampered by unmet international funding promises, the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which remains the internationally recognized government for the Palestinians, and continued Israeli security restrictions — though Israel has recently taken steps to increase the flow of goods into Gaza.
Shijaiyah is one of Gaza City's most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods. Entire city blocks were laid to waste there in fierce fighting between hundreds of Hamas gunmen and Israeli troops.
The first houses are being rebuilt as part of a Qatari-funded project that will see 1,000 housing units reconstructed. For residents in Shijaiyah, where entire blocks remain flattened, it was a rare sign of progress and hope.
Harara used to have a two-floor home for his 10-member family. His new house will only have one floor. But he doesn't mind, he said. "I quickly signed on it to get rid of the suffering," he said.
Harara's old home was one of over 60 housing units in a bloc of buildings shared by his extended family that was destroyed by artillery shells and airstrikes last summer.
Only four housing units are being rebuilt in the Qatari project. The four homes were the first to receive Israeli approval for the necessary building materials, according to Al-Hasayneh.
But he said Israel has approved requests to build more than 630 additional homes funded by Qatar. In addition, plans are in the works for another 1,000 homes funded by Kuwait, he said.
"I think within two weeks, there will be a revolution in construction," said al-Hasayneh, the Palestinian minister.
Harara's brother, Ziad, a teacher who also lost his house, said he was excited to see Sharif's new home begin to take shape. "This gave me a huge hope," he said, standing outside a tent he erected on the empty lot where his house once stood.
But others were less positive. Among them was Hussam Harara, 37, a cousin of Sharif and Ziad. His home is nearby, in an apartment building that was moderately damaged.
"Those with total destruction started rebuilding while nobody gave us any money to repair," he said.
He frowned as he pointed out a freshly painted white mosque that was quickly repaired by Hamas.
"This is a Hamas mosque," he said. "They repaired the mosque and the house that has children was not repaired."