In Gaza, A Few New, Shiny Homes Rise Amid The Rubble

Apr 5, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 3:30 pm

Hytham Harara is happy to show off his family's freshly rebuilt home in Gaza City's Shujaya neighborhood, one of the areas badly battered in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip.

The outside of the house is painted buttercream yellow, trimmed with red and tan. Inside, there's an artistic stone inlay on the floor of the living room, a stylized nightingale mural on one wall, and ornate wooden doors. They create a world far removed from much of the rubble that remains just outside.

"My father likes a house that is beautiful and relaxing to live in," says Harara, 21, the second-eldest son and an English literature major at Gaza's Islamic University.

The family returned home a couple months ago, after a year-and-a-half crammed into a rental across town. But rebuilt homes in this area are just dots among bombed out shells and stalled construction starts.

Gaza is rebuilding yet again. Even since the Palestinians launched an uprising in 2000, this small, poor coastal territory has gone through a recurring cycle of destruction and rebuilding.

Fighting between Palestinians and Israel leads to widespread damage. Then reconstruction money comes from abroad, leading to limited rebuilding. Then there's another round of fighting. Gaza is once again in rebuilding mode, and residents are hoping this time it will last.

Here's a look at the current dynamics in Gaza's reconstruction — and the chronic problems that emerge every time it attempts to rebuild.

Qatar Moves Quickly

The Gulf state of Qatar has the best track record so far of rebuilding homes destroyed in the 2014 war.

Qatar pledged $1 billion to help rebuild Gaza, and a portion of that was allocated to reconstruct 1,000 demolished homes. According to Ibrahim Hamdona, a member of the board overseeing the Qatari work in Gaza, those 1,000 homes are completed. A Palestinian Authority employee monitoring progress puts the Qatari home completion rate lower, around 60 percent finished, but on the fast track.

Qatar has managed the unusual trick of having good working relations with both Hamas and Israel.

Qatar is close to Hamas, and has special permission from Israel to bring in construction materials for a variety of public works projects, from road rehabilitation to a new hospital. Qatar also maintains a large office in Gaza, staffed with engineers and project managers. A special Qatari ambassador to Gaza is allowed to travel from Qatar through Israel periodically to oversee progress.

Hytham Harara's family got on the list of homes being rebuilt by Qatar, and he says that's the only reason his family's home is done while others wait.

Kuwait, Not So Fast

Kuwait is also a major donor to Gaza reconstruction, pledging $200 million for rebuilding projects including 2,000 homes.

But no Kuwaiti funds have yet been disbursed. And if Qatar has become the poster child for successful homebuilding in Gaza, being put on the Kuwaiti list means to many, to wait.

Hassan Faraj and 11 members of his family moved back to their severely damaged home on the eastern edge of Shujaya four months ago. There is no running water. Sewage empties into the yard. The main entry hall serves as a makeshift kitchen. The living room is a bedroom for multiple family members. The door to the pre-war kitchen opens onto a room with no walls and a perilously sagging concrete ceiling. Half of the first floor and most of the second are uninhabitable.

The family paid for essential repairs out of their own budget – rehanging doors, repairing windows, rebuilding walls that could be patched with cinderblocks.

Faraj says he doesn't know how he wound up slated for Kuwaiti assistance.

"We don't know how it works," he said. "People who are lucky are under Qatar. They've rebuilt. We are waiting."

But despite on-the-ground frustrations, it's not fair to blame Kuwait, says Bashir al-Reyyes, the Palestinian Authority's general coordinator for Gaza reconstruction. He says it was clear from the beginning Kuwaiti funds would take time to come through.

"It's the first time in history the state of Kuwait is paying $200 million directly through the [Palestinian] government," Reyyes said. "Kuwait goes step by step. It's not the usual kind of Arab money I call 'dump and go.'"

Palestinian official have announced that Kuwaiti funds for about 1,100 homes will be disbursed later this month.

The U.N. Bureaucracy

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has a huge operation in Gaza and has undertaken a much broader effort than Qatar or Kuwait.

UNRWA was created in 1950 and has been assisting Palestinian refugees in several countries in the Mideast. Among other rebuilding projects, UNRWA is managing the disbursement of donor funds to repair or rebuild more than 140,000 homes. That's 80 percent of the total homes damaged or destroyed in the 2014 war.

"They could have just had the windows blown out, a few cracks, or they've got more structural damage, or they've been totally destroyed," says Melinda Young, UNRWA's deputy director for programs in Gaza.

Funding has been slow coming, but by the end of March, UNRWA says all the evaluations of homes needing repair have been completed, and more than half of the families needing minor repairs to their homes had received all their allotted funding to complete those repairs.

Major repairs have been less well funded, and out of the 7,400 totally destroyed homes on UNRWA's list to be rebuilt, 60 are done and funding is available for nearly 2,000 more.

Complicated Politics

With so many players involved, it took nearly a year to get a system in place to move massive amounts of construction materials into Gaza.

Israel, for example, does not allow certain reconstruction materials into Gaza, including wood planks thicker than one millimeter and some adhesives, out of concerns they could be used for military purposes.

All materials enter from Israel, through one crossing point. Security checks add time to transfers. And UNRWA's Young says the capacity for the crossing has not yet been truly tested, since slow funding means demand for materials has not peaked.

Last week, Israel said Hamas had gotten its hands on cement that was intended for approved reconstruction in Gaza. Israel has frequently warned Hamas uses cement to rebuild and fortify tunnels designed to allow militants to enter Israel. So Israel barred cement from entering Gaza through the special mechanism set up after the war. But specific exceptions were made so cement can still be brought in for home reconstruction managed by the UN and Qatar.

According to the World Bank, which tracks the promises of assistance made by international donors in October 2014, after the war, only 40 percent of pledges had been disbursed by the end of February 2016.

Much of that goes for assistance other than housing. But the gap between need and funding for housing is wide. UNRWA's Young says the agency's entire caseload of homes needing repairs – anything short of complete reconstruction – could be cleared in six months if the money was there. She estimates the need at about $400 million.

"That's tens of thousands of people," Young says.

During the 2014 pledging conference, some donors expressed a reluctance to give because they had contributed to Gaza reconstruction after earlier conflicts only to see more infrastructure destroyed. UNRWA is still seeking $28 million to cover housing needs created by previous wars.

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New, brightly painted houses now dot a Gaza neighborhood that was severely damaged by war almost two years ago. And right next to most of the new houses are uninhabitable shells of what used to be homes. NPR's Emily Harris looks at the hoops Gazans have to jump through to get their homes rebuilt. It starts with who's paying the bill.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: One pretty, new house in Gaza's Shujaya neighborhood is painted buttercream yellow with warm, red trim. Golden highlights fleck the decorative black grill work on the front door.


HYTHAM HARARA: Just a minute. Yes?

HARRIS: Twenty-one-year-old Hytham Harara is the oldest son at home.

HARARA: My home was destructed in the last war. We moved back maybe before just two months ago.

HARRIS: That was already a year and a half after the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group which runs Gaza. And Harara feels lucky. Many of his neighbors are not back yet. Harara points around at ruins and reconstruction.

HARARA: These buildings, this and this, that, were destructed. Some of them were rebuilt and the other is still waiting to rebuild their home.

HARRIS: Across the dirt road, a dozen new concrete pillars stand tall on a fresh foundation. This belongs to a family member but Harara says construction is on hold.

HARARA: Their names is included in the Kuwaiti's rebuilding.

HARRIS: Kuwaiti rebuilding - that's money provided by the government of Kuwait. The Gaza government decides who gets that money or help from another Gulf state, Qatar. Qatari money has flowed more quickly in part because of politics, says Gaza political analyst Mkaimer Abu Sada.

MKAIMER ABU SADA: Qatar has a very good relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in general and with Hamas in particular.

HARRIS: Kuwait's relationship is not as good, but that's not the only obstacle. To get to the front of either line, there's a lot of paperwork, paperwork that took almost a year for one family to get together. Hassan Faraj and 11 family members have moved back into their home, even though it's still mostly destroyed. Sewage empties into the yard. Inside...

YOSRA FARAJ: No kitchen, no kitchen.

HARRIS: Yosra Faraj is baking bread in what used to be the main entry hall. A wooden door leads to what used to be the kitchen.

Oh, it opens right into the outside.

The outer walls are blown away. So much for the kitchen, says Faraj.

HASSAN FARAJ: Cancelled (laughter).

HARRIS: Faraj has kept his sense of humor, despite not receiving rebuilding cash yet. He's on the Kuwaiti waitlist after finishing the required documentation.

H. FARAJ: (Through interpreter) To start with the municipality to prove that you own the piece of land and you own the building that was hit. Then you got maps for the new building and then you have the OK from the ministry of works and housing. All this paperwork took almost a year.

HARRIS: The United Nations is charged with rebuilding the biggest number of totally destroyed homes in Gaza - more than 7,000. So far, only 84 families have received money to rebuild. Melinda Young, the deputy director of the biggest U.N. agency here, says it's going slowly because the U.N. prioritizes the most needy families. Many have to clear debts as part of the reconstruction agreement. And some, Young says, might not ever be able to provide the proof needed to rebuild.

MELINDA YOUNG: So that 20 percent of the caseload can't prove legal title to their land. They may have been built on what was originally government land that they don't have title to. They can't, therefore, rebuild there.

HARRIS: Those people might have to be relocated. So far, this story has been about just the Gaza homes totally destroyed in the 2014 war. More than 140,000 were also damaged in some way - lightly or really badly. Around half have been fixed. The U.N.'s Young says the only real thing holding up repairs on the rest is money.

YOUNG: They've had all the assessments done, the engineer and site visits, all that sort of thing. Get the money, within six months we could then clear that caseload. And that's tens of thousands of people.

HARRIS: But it's hundreds of millions of dollars they're waiting for - pledges made by various donor countries back in the fall of 2014. Emily Harris, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.