One Year Since Israel's Offensive, Gaza Still Suffers

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Abed Rahim Khatib / EPA

Thick black smoke rises after an Israeli air-force strike on a building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Dec. 28, 2008

One year after Israel launched its three-week offensive in Gaza that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes in a campaign aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire, the survivors are still living in rubble. And it is not for want of money that thousands of residents of the coastal enclave remain homeless this winter. Moved by the plight of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians who were already reeling from a 2½-year economic siege imposed by Israel with help from Egypt and the U.S. even before Israel's air-and-ground assault had begun, international donors earlier this year pledged more than $4.5 billion to repair war damages. But that aid has failed to reach Gaza, according to Palestinians and relief agencies who accuse Israel of imposing Kafkaesque rules that bar from entry vital reconstruction materials and items as innocuous as glass, most schoolbooks, honey and family-size tubs of margarine.

Says Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA): "Because the Israelis are not allowing in any reconstruction material, that $4.5 billion is just a paper figure." With more than 80% of Gazans now surviving on humanitarian handouts from UNRWA, Gunness adds, "Palestinians are becoming more desperate and more extreme."

Relief officials estimate that Gaza needs 40,000 tons of cement and 25,000 tons of iron to start repairing the homes, hospitals, schools and shops destroyed during Israel's offensive. But so far, according to GISHA, an Israeli legal-rights group, the Israelis have allowed only 19 trucks carrying construction material into Gaza since the war ended last January. "You could say that Israel has bombed Gaza back into the mud age," says UNRWA's Gunness, "because that's what they're building their houses out of now — mud."

Without parts to replace machinery damaged in the war, 97% of Gaza's factories have shut down, raising unemployment higher than 43%. With scarce sources of income, many Gazans would probably starve if not for food handouts from the U.N. and other agencies. More than 40,000 Gazans have no electricity; 10,000 have no running water in their homes; and because Israel bans entry of the spare parts needed to run Gaza's sewage-treatment plant, every day 87 million liters of sewage are dumped into the Mediterranean (which washes up on Israel's beaches too).

Although the international community occasionally protests Gaza's ongoing tragedy, so far no real pressure has been put on Israel to loosen its stranglehold. A senior official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government recently confided to a U.N. colleague that Israel's goal for Gaza was "no development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis." The U.N. official interpreted that to mean that Israel would provide Gaza with an intravenous drip of relief to keep its 1.5 million inhabitants alive but just barely, in hopes that the people would overthrow the Hamas government they voted into power in the latest Palestinian elections. But that hasn't happened yet, nor is it likely to: Hamas smuggles arms, money and supplies into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt, and increasingly, joining the militants has become the only source of a monthly wage for young males. In the meantime, says John Ging, UNRWA's chief officer in Gaza, the Israeli siege is "facilitating the destruction of a civilized society." Before the siege, Palestinians in Gaza had prided themselves on the excellence of their schools and industriousness of their workers, many of whom, in more peaceful times, held jobs across the fence in Israel.

The only flicker of hope right now for a lifting of Israel's siege of Gaza is if Israel secures the return of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who has been in Hamas captivity in Gaza since being snatched from the Israeli side of the boundary in the summer of 2006. Through Egyptian and German mediators, Hamas and Israel are negotiating a prisoner swap in which Shalit would be returned in exchange for the release of more than 900 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, many of them convicted of terrorism. Israeli and Palestinian sources tell TIME that the deal now depends on resolving the conflict between Israel's demand that many of the West Bank prisoners be expelled to Gaza or abroad and Hamas' insistence that they be allowed to return to their homes.

Hamas is also insisting on linking the prisoner exchange to an end to Israel's blockade — which European leaders are also clamoring for Israel to do. But Israeli military sources tell TIME that the military is urging Netanyahu to leave the blockade intact, arguing that its removal could strengthen Hamas politically and militarily.

After last winter's war, Hamas has been able to use its Egyptian tunnel network to rearm itself with rockets, but that subterranean supply route may soon stop. Backed by U.S. funding and expertise, the Egyptians are pressing ahead with controversial plans to close off smugglers' burrows into Gaza by building a steel wall that runs 100 ft. (30 m) deep along its border. One noted Egyptian newspaper editor, Ibrahim Issa, dubbed it his country's "Wall of Shame."

If Egypt, with Washington's help, shuts down all the tunnels into Gaza, then it is not only Hamas that will suffer — the tunnels are the only lifeline for vital, everyday goods for all Gazans. So unless Netanyahu sees fit to ease the squeeze on Gaza after the prisoner swap for Shalit, the privations faced by Gaza's Palestinians are bound to get a lot worse.

— With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem