Half of Mohammed Abed Rabbo’s extended family of 23 lives in a tent next to the rubble of his two-story house in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, while the rest is crowded into a small rented home nearby.
Abed Rabbo says his house was destroyed 17 months ago by Israeli bulldozers after Palestinian militants hid nearby and fired at soldiers. The 55-year-old potato farmer says he can’t get material needed to rebuild because Israel restricts most construction supplies from entering Hamas-ruled Gaza.
His is one of more than 3,000 homes that the United Nations reported were destroyed during the 22-day military offensive Israel says it initiated in December 2008 to stop Hamas and other groups from firing rockets at its southern towns. Israel clamped restrictions on goods entering Gaza after Hamas seized control there in 2007 and has begun relaxing them after facing international pressure in the wake of its May 31 raid on an aid flotilla that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.
“The siege has affected everything in Gaza,” Abed Rabbo, whose farm is near Gaza’s northern border, said in an interview before yesterday’s Israeli decision to loosen the blockade. “It’s destroyed our lives.”
The lives of Abed Rabbo and the 1.5 million other residents of Gaza have become hostage to a three-cornered political struggle pitting Hamas -- which Israel, the U.S. and the European Union have branded as terrorist -- against both the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority government that controls the West Bank.
‘Pressuring the Population’
While Israel saw the blockade as a way to undermine Hamas’s hold on Gaza by turning the population against it, the strategy hasn’t worked, said Mohsen Adnan, director of the Arab Center for Agricultural Development in Gaza City.
“Israel hoped that by pressuring the population in Gaza, Hamas would be uprooted, but Hamas is still strong and the people have been exhausted by the siege,” Adnan said in a telephone interview.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, say restrictions on food imports and building materials have created a humanitarian crisis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said June 2 that each week “an average of ten thousand tons of goods enter Gaza” and that “there’s no shortage of food. There’s no shortage of medicine.”
Israel says it restricts imports of construction materials to Gaza because they can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs. Officials said they were also concerned about weapons being hidden in food packaging.
More than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the Gaza conflict. Since then, more than 400 rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel, killing one foreign worker last March, the Israeli army said.
Israel’s top ministers decided yesterday to loosen the blockade, changing the system in which goods enter Gaza and expanding the import of “material for civilian projects under international supervision,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the decision was a “first step” that must be followed by “swift, concrete and noticeable improvements in access to the Gaza Strip.”
Egypt has also largely kept its Gaza border closed since Hamas took over because it says it doesn’t recognize the Islamic movement’s administration. After the flotilla raid, it opened the Rafah crossing, which is used mainly by people.
Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted troops loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following year and took full control of Gaza.
At least 3,540 homes in Gaza were destroyed in the conflict with Israel and 2,870 were severely damaged, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an August 2009 report. Restrictions on imports and exports resulted in the loss of some 120,000 jobs, the report said.
Haytham Khudeir, 30, who runs an import business out of an office in downtown Gaza City, estimates he’s lost some $500,000 in sales since Israel cut off most shipments into the territory. He buys coffee, mineral water and cooking oil at increased prices that come through smuggling tunnels from Egypt, built to circumvent the blockade, and can’t get the quantities once available through Israel.
“It’s very difficult to get quality products and people don’t have money to buy them,” Khudeir said. “Running a business in Gaza these days is almost impossible.”
The UN classifies 75 percent of Gaza’s population as “food insecure,” meaning they lack access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. It cited a shift in the diet of Gazans from more expensive foods, such as fruit, vegetables and animal products, to cheap and high-carbohydrate foods such as cereals, sugar and oil.
‘Vegetables and Bread’
“My children see fruit in the grocery stores, but we can’t afford it,” Walid Mushtaha, a 45-year-old unemployed father of nine, said in an interview. His family depends on food supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that include flour, olive oil, rice, sugar and canned beef. His family’s diet consists largely of “vegetables and bread,” he said. “On weekends we open the cans of processed beef. Fresh meat, maybe once a month.”
Restricted goods ranging from computers to live cattle and motorcycles have been available at twice to four times their market price through the tunnels, which are licensed and taxed by Hamas. Weapons are also smuggled in via the tunnels.
Israel says its blockade is legal because it is in “a state of armed conflict” with Hamas. Legal scholars such as Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland, say the legality turns on whether the conflict is a full-fledged war and whether the military benefit is proportionate to civilian suffering.
Sitting in his tent and offering tea, Abed Rabbo said he rushed his family from their house when Israel started bombing and headed south, away from the area where fighting was most intense.
After the war ended with a cease-fire on Jan. 18, 2009, Abed Rabbo said, he and his family returned to find their home destroyed.
“I thought we might be able to get some cement from the flotilla, but look what happened,” he said.