Azzam Salim used to be one of the leading construction contractors in the central Gaza Strip. Today, however, he spends most of his days idly chatting with other unemployed friends near a bank that he helped build several years ago. The al-Rayan refugee camp in northern Gaza. (Photo: Rami Al-Meghari)

Azzam Salim used to be one of the leading construction contractors in the central Gaza Strip. Today, however, he spends most of his days idly chatting with other unemployed friends near a bank that he helped build several years ago.

‘As a human first and foremost, I need to live normally like before. This situation is unprecedented — before the siege was enforced here, I didn’t have time to sit. But now things have changed, now we are professional talkers.’

What prevents Salim from returning to work is the lack of raw building materials in the Gaza Strip, due to Israel’s crippling Israeli blockade of the territory since June 2007. In March 2009, international donors including the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia met in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh pledging at least $4 billion to reconstruct Gaza following last winter’s 22-day Israeli invasion of the territory. However, the promised funds have yet to reach Gaza as the international community continues to boycott the governing Hamas party.

‘In order for us to rebuild houses, facilities, schools, mosques and other [buildings], we need basic building materials like cement, iron, aluminum, wood, plastic, etc. At the very least, we need cement and iron to start reconstruction immediately,’ said Salim.

According to local and international estimates, the Israeli assault on Gaza rendered tens of thousands of homes, schools, governmental buildings, mosques and other facilities either partially or completely destroyed. As a result, more than 51,000 residents are homeless.

‘I used to live happily with my children in a regular house in the Jabaliya refugee camp, but now I live miserably in this tent, where even animals could not get by. We appeal for help that will rid us of this miserable life,’ said Mahmoud Abu Alanzain, a displaced father of three children, while in his tent in the al-Rayan refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. The tents were set up as temporary shelter after the fighting stopped.

Hundreds of families in Gaza are in a situation similar to Abu Alanzain’s. Many of those whose houses were partially or completely destroyed are now staying in newly established camps, rented apartments or with relatives or friends.

Another scene of destruction in the coastal enclave is that of the local universities. Israeli shelling targeted the Islamic University and al-Aqsa University’s agricultural school.

‘We in the Islamic University of Gaza have lost a significant scientific laboratory building because of the bombing by Israeli warplanes. This laboratory used to serve not only the university’s tests, but also those of other sectors of the Gaza community such as the agricultural or water sectors. We used to perform needed tests for poisonous substances, checks that cannot be done, except in the university’s laboratory,’ Dr. Kamalin Shaath, president of the Islamic University of Gaza, explained.

In recent weeks, the Hamas government undertook a widespread campaign to remove the rubble of destroyed buildings. Also, local engineers, based on the idea that need is the mother of invention, have begun using available materials like mud to rebuild some facilities.

‘We have embarked on removing the ruins of knocked down buildings throughout Gaza, in an attempt to repair some of the damage, using mud. Unfortunately, our attempts have failed so far due to technical reasons. One of the main reasons is the fact that we don’t have enough land space to build vertically, besides the lack of many essential raw materials such as electrical or sanitation supplies,’ said Dr. Yousef al-Mansi, minister of works and construction in Gaza.

Al-Mansi added that his ministry is willing to cooperate with any international body for the sake of reconstructing the war-torn Gaza Strip, but without preconditions designed to undermine Hamas’ governance.

‘It is unnecessary that we get cash into our hands; what is needed is that the reconstruction begins, so that the people can be housed again. We have given a chance for contractors, companies, institutions and countries to come and implement the reconstruction in coordination with us. For those who want to reconstruct, there are many clear means for them to start building, but we reject any political extortion. In the last war, we lost our children, our families and our homes; all we want is to live in dignity.’

The US and European Union have boycotted Hamas since the party came to power in internationally monitored and recognized elections in 2006. They have placed demands on Hamas to recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state,’ renounce violence and accept previously negotiated agreements.

Visibly frustrated, contractor Azzam Salim said, ‘I am so eager to return back to my work, it is like someone who is left in a desert without water.’

This story was written for and published by Electronic Intifada on November 4, 2009