Home, wrecked home

IN THEIR garden, strewn with the rubble of three destroyed houses, the young men of the Qudeih family flick through pictures of Hamada, their 26-year-old brother. He had joined the new wave of boat people escaping the Gaza Strip after a 50-day war with Israel. But there has been no news of Hamada since his rickety vessel, carrying hundreds of Palestinians, set off on September 6th and sank off the coast of Malta. His father, Abdel-Halim, borrowed $3,500 to pay smugglers to take him to Europe. All his five sons were jobless, bar one living in Hamburg, and he wanted Hamada to join him. Israeli forces had destroyed Hamada’s chicken coops, he said. “I couldn’t keep on giving him 20 shekels ($5.50) a day.”

With its land borders and airspace blocked off, the Mediterranean Sea lapping at Gaza’s beaches has long looked enticing. Yet Palestinians have not produced boat people since the war that created Israel in 1948; they clung on through wars, occupation, siege and incursions. Now they are flocking to get passports renewed, and the talk is of some 1,000 having sailed off.

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For all the speculation about a long-term ceasefire deal to reopen Gaza, and of billions of dollars being provided to rebuild the strip, the siege has tightened. For now Israel and Egypt, led by an anti-Islamist general, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, bar passage of even the limited supplies of building materials they allowed into Gaza before the war. Smuggling tunnels have been blocked. Highways funded by Qatar lie abandoned, half-finished. Thousands of caravans for the homeless lie piled high in Turkey, unable to get through the red tape. Four Paws, a British charity, negotiated to bring out three scrawny lions from a Gaza zoo, but not their keepers.

Once known as Gaza’s orchards, Khuzaa, home to the Qudeih family, is a bombed wasteland. Some live in shacks on top of their crumpled homes; others huddle within the wreckage. “Clean, clean, we have to keep clean,” says Hamadan al-Najar, sweeping the carpet he spread on the ruins of his three-storey home. Everyone worries about the coming rains. Nobody has insurance to rebuild homes and livelihoods. People-smuggling is one of the few growing industries. Egypt is hosting a donor conference in Cairo on October 12th, but it cannot make much progress until Gaza’s future is decided.

The damage caused by Israeli forces is compounded by the cynicism of Palestine’s two rival movements, which have exploited misery as a political card. Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza for seven years, prolonged the war needlessly, hoping international outrage would force Israel to offer better ceasefire terms. Now Hamas is broke and wants to give up some responsibilities in Gaza. But President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that runs the West Bank, has so far avoided filling the vacuum, hoping that exasperation will weaken Hamas and force it to cede even more control. Gaza’s damage has been inspected by more Western dignitaries than officials from Mr Abbas’s authority. Rival bureaucrats have even less contact than they did before Hamas and the PA agreed on a reconciliation in April, say officials.

Under a deal agreed in September, Mr Abbas will take over Gaza’s government, reconstruction programme, borders and security, beginning with the stationing of 3,000 of his presidential guard along the Egyptian border.

Mr Abbas’s plan might yet work. With Hamas unable to pay its employees properly for almost a year, its officials say their morale and sense of public service is slipping. Struggling to pay their bus fares, fewer bureaucrats turn up for work. Hamas’s police, who made Gaza a safer and more ordered place than their PA, Israeli and Egyptian predecessors, still control the traffic and issue tickets. But many fear a return of the falatan amni, or “security chaos”, of the past. No timetable for the handover has yet been agreed on, but Hamas’s cadres seem increasingly focused on leaving government and shoring up the last line of defence, their armed wing. “Take everything, but leave us the resistance,” says Younis al-Astal, a charismatic hardline preacher, and Hamas parliamentarian.

Yet Hamas knows that flaunting its guns means that Israel is bound to block any agreement, and the reconstruction of Gaza will be stymied. No wonder its people are desperate to get out.