This past week, Gaza resident Ranah Wahba got a call in the middle of the night from a neighbor who was relaying a warning he had just received.
“Leave now. Your home is about to be bombed,” he told her.
Wahba immediately scooped up her 4-year-old son and ran outside. It wasn’t long before a rocket hit her home, she told The World in a WhatsApp call from Gaza.
“Thank God, thank God I was able to save my child,” she said.
The rocket was fired by the Israeli military amid 11 days of war with the Palestinian militant group, Hamas. The violence came to a halt with a ceasefire agreement on Thursday, which was brokered by neighboring Egypt after the US pressed Israel to wind down its campaign on Gaza.
Since fighting broke out in the region on May 10, Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes targeting Hamas’ infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, including a vast tunnel network and other residential buildings, schools and clinics. Hamas and Islamist Jihad also fired several thousand rockets at Israel.
At least 230 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to Gaza health officials, while 12 people in Israel have died. Now, people on both sides are mourning lost loved ones and starting to think about rebuilding.
A daunting rebuilding effort ahead
Wahba’s family is among the 66,000 residents seeking protection in 58 UN-run schools across Gaza and over 25,000 staying with host families, the UN said. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Public Works, 1,800 homes have been damaged.
For Gazans, though, the challenges are daunting. First, the extent of the damage is far greater. But also because there has been a 14-year blockade on Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
“There are only three entry points into Gaza that are operable."
“There are only three entry points into Gaza that are operable,” said Michael Lynk, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
“Israel controls virtually everything that enters into Gaza and also controls who enters Gaza, and as well, it controls [...] what leaves Gaza in terms of export goods,” he said.
Importing construction material, for example, requires special permission from the Israeli military. Lynk explained that there is a long list of goods that are considered to be “dual use” — meaning they could be used for peaceful purposes like building a house or to construct underground tunnels.
“So, the ability to be able to import the kind of essential construction materials including cement, including piping, including machinery, particularly power generators is always subject to exceptional scrutiny by Israel, or they’re just not allowed in,” Lynk said.
Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took control of the territory. According to the Israeli government, Hamas, a designated terrorist group, poses grave security threats for Israel, and therefore, the blockade is necessary.
But the humanitarian toll of the blockade has been devastating and that goes back even before this latest round of fighting, said Yara Asi, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Central Florida, who focuses on global health and development in fragile and conflict-affected populations.
“The situation is really dire. You had up to 50% unemployment, you had over two-thirds of the population food insecure. Most of the accessible water is not drinkable due to pollution and lack of water treatment."
“The situation is really dire. You had up to 50% unemployment, you had over two-thirds of the population food insecure. Most of the accessible water is not drinkable due to pollution and lack of water treatment,” she said.
Electricity is limited and the sewage system is not functioning, she added.
About 2 million people live in the Gaza Strip, a sliver of land about the size of Manhattan.
Israel doesn’t just control Gaza’s land borders. It also controls its airspace and access to the Mediterranean Sea.
“I cannot think of another place in the world where there are so many people, in this case 2 million people, who are penned up behind a fence and cannot freely travel to the outside world,” Lynk said. “Name me another comparable situation. I can’t think of one.”
Lynk and others have described the blockade as collective punishment. They say civilians are paying the price for the actions of their leaders while Palestinians have not been able to vote in a national election since 2006.
‘Cycle of construction and destruction’
Israel does let humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Gaza-based economist Omar Shaban pointed out that the territory has been through four wars in recent years, the last one in 2014.
"We need to get out of this cycle of construction and destruction, construction and destruction.”
“The donor countries have spent billions of dollars to rehabilitate what was destroyed in 2014,” he said over WhatsApp from Gaza. “Now, what was reconstructed in 2014 has been demolished in this war. So, all the time I say [...] that we need to get out of this cycle of construction and destruction, construction and destruction.”
This time, Shaban worries that donor nations will be less generous because they are dealing with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
The full extent of the damage in Gaza is not clear yet. But it appears to be extensive.
Egypt and Qatar have pledged donations and President Joe Biden said the US will do its part.
Asi, the scholar in Florida, says the destruction in Gaza is not just a Palestinian issue.
“A lot of the destruction is donor-funded buildings and structures, and so, in a way, it’s us that are paying for it — either through tax dollars to our governments that they, in turn, use as foreign aid, or through direct donations.”
Meanwhile, Wahba, who is expecting her second child, said her family, after the rocket hit their home, was forced to move in with her parents. She said it’s hard to know how long it might take to rebuild. When she went to survey the damage at her house, it was a pile of rubble.
Her family lived in that house for five years, she said, and maybe it will end up like dozens of other buildings in Gaza that remain in ruins.
“I cannot describe my feeling. I’m homeless,” she said.