Among ruins of bombed city towers, Gazans still reel from shock and pain

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  August 15, 2021

Three months on from the devastating conflict, little has been rebuilt of the bombed high-rises that were homes and offices.

Four years ago, Jehad Judah was pleased to be able to afford to buy his family a flat in Al-Jalaa, a 14-storey building in downtown Gaza City. The upscale tower block was home to about 700 people as well as lawyers, computer software businesses and journalism bureaus belonging to the Associated Press of the US and Qatar’s Al-Jazeera.

The 54-year-old bespectacled civil servant spent the first 30 years of his life living in the jumble of breeze-block housing of a nearby refugee camp. After he met his wife in 2001, the couple moved to Gaza to start a family. The Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the strip which came along a few years later made life in the city hard, but Al-Jalaa still offered a decent standard of living, he said.

“It was the high-end of the market. It was spacious, it had a good generator and other services, the neighbours were nice. I was never worried we were a target. I never ever thought that for a second,” he said. “We were surrounded by lawyers, journalists, civilians.”

Yet on 15 May, after nine days of listening to bombs fall on the neighbourhood during the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group which rules over the Gaza Strip’s two million residents, the Judah family heard a commotion outside the front door.

“Our neighbours told us they were evacuating because there had been a phone call from the Israelis and they were going to bomb it. We left as quickly as we could, just taking passports and other documents,” Jehad said. “We waited nearby, we still didn’t really believe it was going to happen, we thought AP could intervene for us. I still don’t believe it. I’m still in shock.”

Three months after Al-Jalaa collapsed in a cascade of concrete and glass, most of the rubble has been cleared away: workers are still digging through what remains for twisted strips of steel rebar, straightening it with pliers to be resold for new construction projects.

The scene is repeated all over the coastal enclave. Hardly anything destroyed in May has been rebuilt yet, save filling in some of the craters on the main roads for traffic, because the majority of outside funding for reconstruction is still held up in talks. The ceasefire, now presided over by a new Israeli coalition government headed by right-winger Naftali Bennett, is fragile – but holding.

Hamas and smaller groups such as Islamic Jihad declared they won May’s hostilities, and indeed, the extremists managed to scare Israel with both the volume and range of their rocket attacks – not to mention an improved ability to get missiles past the Iron Dome air defence system.

But it doesn’t feel like that on the ground. The still-gaping wounds of Gaza City’s architecture reflect the shock and pain many here are still suffering.

May was the third large-scale round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the 14 years since the militants wrested control of the strip from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. The takeover led Israel and neighbouring Egypt to impose a punishing blockade which has created what inhabitants call the “world’s largest prison”, with more than 50% unemployment, a collapsed healthcare system, poisonous water and relentless power cuts.

Each war has brought fresh sorrows, although the nature of the fighting has differed. With no ground invasion this time, Israel instead relied on the heaviest weapons in its arsenal, including US-made “bunker busting” GBU-28s, for an intense aerial campaign. And the clearest difference between this war and those that have come before, according to local human rights group al-Mezan, is the deliberate targeting of high-rise tower blocks, all of which were home to civilians and offices.

With limited space and a growing population, there are few options for Gazans other than to build upwards. Yet after gathering its fieldwork over the last three months, Al-Mezan has found that this time around, 232 housing units in high-rises like Al-Jalaa were hit during May’s 11-day confrontation, compared with 182 in 2014’s conflict, which lasted seven weeks. In May, bombings of towers were usually accompanied by a phone call warning residents to evacuate. In 2014 such calls were rare.

As at the end of the 2014 war, the centre of Gaza City, rather than border areas, was heavily targeted. Even now the commercial crossing with Israel remains partially closed, creating shortages in medical supplies such as anaesthetic gas, putting surgeries on hold and limiting the strip’s intensive-care capabilities.

“This time there was a clear targeting of humanitarian efforts. Even things like hitting residential streets because they say there are Hamas tunnels beneath: it bursts water pipes, it blocks roads, making it harder to evacuate the wounded,” said Samir Zaquot, field research unit director at Al-Mezan.

“They didn’t hit some obvious Hamas targets, like Yahya Sinwar’s office [Hamas’ leader inside Gaza]. It’s about sending a message. It’s about telling Hamas, ‘Look, we can destroy everything,’ and telling ordinary people there is no hope.”

Amnon Shefler, spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said its targets were “all of high military value to Hamas and were vetted according to rigorous procedures within the IDF and in accordance with international law.

Unfortunately, the Hamas and PIJ [Islamic Jihad] terrorist organizations intentionally place military assets in the heart of densely populated areas, aiming to increase the chance of civilian casualties in Gaza and to challenge the IDF’s ability to strike terrorist operatives and infrastructure.”

He added that the IDF had “provided advance warnings to civilians in the vicinity so they could evacuate prior to the strikes, as well as taking efforts to ensure civilians had in fact evacuated prior to carrying out the strike.”.

Comprehensive reports released last month by Human Rights Watch, however, found that both sides were probably guilty of war crimes for deliberately targeting densely populated civilian areas with disproportionate force.

And after so many wars in such a small area and such a short length of time, each conflict compounds misery upon misery.

In Beit Hanoun, a dusty town near the strip’s northern border, the Hamid family lost 34-year-old Raed, one of six sons, in May. He had been asleep in a room on the second floor of the large family home when an Israeli shell ploughed through the roof, destroying the back of the house and starting a fire that consumed much of what was left.

“We already lost our house in the 2014 war,” said Zakaria Hamid, 65, Raed’s father. “We rebuilt as three separate houses after that, lower structures. We thought if some of us were going to die, at least it wouldn’t be all of us.”

Help with reconstruction was not yet forthcoming, the Hamids said: despite repeated requests, officials have not visited to carry out an assessment of their needs. Even if aid money arrives from the UN, Egypt or Qatar, the blockade means the price of building materials can rise rapidly, and it might not be possible for the family to afford the repairs.

Ultimately it is the mental toll of life in Gaza, rather than physical destruction, which carries the highest cost, said 38-year-old Sharif, Raed’s brother. “To live without freedom and without dignity makes it impossible to be happy,” he said, sitting with the rest of his family in the shade outside their ruined home. Where the back wall should be, a silvery olive grove is now visible, its leaves whispering as the summer breeze passes through the shell of the house.

“That is what it means to be Palestinian. Raed dreamed of being free, but it was impossible.” For so many, it is still.

Bethan McKernan is the Turkey and Middle East correspondent for The Guardian

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City