Jan 29, 2009

World - The Devastation of Gaza: From Factories to Ice Cream

Yaser Alwadeya wanders past a field strewn with the remnants of gaily painted ice cream carts that were shredded by a blizzard of shrapnel. He enters the blackened innards of the Al Ameer factory, which once manufactured Gaza's tastiest ice cream and popsicles. Shaking his head, he says, "I can't figure out why the Israelis thought that Hamas had anything to do with ice cream."

Alwadeya's ice cream plant, which had been owned by his family for 55 years, was far from the only factory destroyed in Israel's 22-day assault on the Palestinian enclave. All along Gaza's factory row - which produced everything from biscuits to cement to wooden furniture - hardly a single building remains standing. It is as if a tsunami of fire had roared through Gaza's industrial district, leaving in its wake a tide-line of twisted metal and smashed buildings. (See images of Gaza digging out)

Israeli war planners had vowed to destroy the "infrastructure of terror" in Gaza, but even many Gazans opposed to Hamas believe the operation was directed against infrastructure per se - it certainly demolished much of Gaza's economy and its civil society.

The Israeli military targeted tunnels, arms caches, police stations and the hideouts of several Hamas military commanders. But Israeli attacks also destroyed over 230 factories, according to the Palestinian Industries Federation. Nearly 50 schools and 23 mosques were also damaged, as well as scores of government buildings, including the Presidential Compound and the Assembly building, which Gazans who saw as the symbolic foundation for an eventual Palestinian state.

"The Israelis want to keep us poor and ignorant," says Amar Hamad, chairman of the Palestinian Industries Federation. "Businessmen were the last layer of society who believed that prosperity would bring peace with Israel. Now they don't believe that."

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) says that it chose its military targets carefully, to minimize destruction to surrounding property and human lives. And the IDF also accuses Hamas of putting ordinary Gazans in harm's way by firing rockets at Israel from inside crowded neighborhoods. But several businessmen interviewed by TIME insist that no militants were taking refugee inside the factories bombed by Israelis. "They're targeting factories to make us dependent on the Israeli economy," claims Hamad.

Gazans are also baffled as to why Israeli planes rocketed the American International School, an institution that served the sons and daughters of wealthy Palestinians and which, until recently, flew the U.S. flag. "Our students learned American geography and history," say Sharhabe el Alzaeem, a trustee. "We sent kids to Harvard and Yale." Asked if militants might have been using the grounds to fire rockets, Alzaeem retorted: "We had high walls and good security. Our guard asked if he could bring his family to stay with him because the school was safer than his neighborhood. Would he be sending for his family if there were militants running around inside the school?" The caretaker was killed when an Israeli aircraft fired several rockets into the facility, regarded as Gaza's finest school.

Gaza's housing stock also took a hammering in the recent hostilities. Initial estimates of the Public Works ministry say that over 2,100 houses were destroyed, and another 45,000 left in need of major repairs. A key sewage plant, whose construction with international funding had the backing of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was also hit, causing nearly $200 million in damages. Maintenance experts say that a crumbling wall around a sewage lake is now in danger of spilling out tons of fetid waste into the streets and alleys of northern Gaza.

Total reconstruction costs for Gaza as a result of the three-week offensive are estimated by the United Nations to run to over $1.5 billion, but the channeling of reconstruction aid into the territory is a contentious political issue. Israel and some international donors are reluctant to send the funds through Hamas, which governs Gaza, for fear of "legitimizing" the Islamists, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says. One Hamas spokesman told TIME that the group's primary concern was rebuilding Gaza from the rubble. "We want to rebuild houses, not our military capacity," he said. But other Hamas commanders said they would continue bringing weapons into Gaza to enable their "resistance" against Israel.

With the conflict unresolved, Israel is pressing for a continuation of the 18-month economic siege imposed on the 1.5 million people of Gaza by Israel, the U.S. and its European and Arab allies. But John Ging, the head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), warned of the danger of keeping the crossings into Gaza closed for political reasons. "This isn't about keeping the people of Gaza alive on a drip of medicine and subsistence aid. That allows extremism to ferment in Gaza," he says. Indeed, with few factories left, there are no jobs, no ice cream, and plenty of new recruits for Hamas.

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