When the Nassir family were finally rid of an unwanted household item they had been stuck with for more than seven months, there were huge cheers and bursts of music. The unexploded bomb, 10ft long, weighing more than a ton, and delivered by an Israeli warplane, had been the talk of Gaza’s Beit Hanoun neighbourhood.
The family was one of 40 households in Gaza sharing their residence with explosive devices because they had nowhere else to live. There has been little or no reconstruction following last summer’s war. Some of the schools that had become places of refuge have been returned to the education system, the others still housing the homeless, are full. Meanwhile, the cost of what properties are still available for renting has risen by more than 200 per cent.
There are 18 members of the extended Nassir family, ranging in age from a two-year-old girl to a grandfather of 64, living in the house with a massive, jagged hole in the floor of the front room. That there is no longer something ticking away underneath the floor is a huge relief to those in the surrounding houses as well as the Nassirs.
“When we moved back here last August there were a lot of people who were accusing us of being irresponsible, but I asked them what they suggested we did instead, where do we stay?” recalled Fadel Nassir, 41. The civil servant who is employed by Fatah, cannot work in Hamas-run Gaza, although he still draws a salary. But, after paying off debts it amounts to $350 (£235) a month. “Apartments which would have cost $150 or $200 a month before the war are now more than $ 600 and even then they are very small,” he said.
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“Of course, we have been worried [about the bomb] all the time. We went to the authorities many times and eventually they sent us to Ahmed, who is an expert in these things.”
Ahmed Miat, whose team extracted the bomb, said at first that he had gained his expertise in Germany. Later he expanded that he had, in fact, undertaken a short general engineering course there and was self-taught in bomb-disposal, largely from the internet. He had, he said, already made two households safe from ordnance and had a waiting list of others in Gaza.
Each project costs Mr Miat $5,000, with the salaries of his 18 men and the expense of hiring equipment. This money comes out of his own pocket. Israeli air strikes destroyed his tarmacking factory in Shujaiya last July, with losses of $250,000.
He said: “I have got other money left and if I need to spend it helping other people then I shall while it lasts. The ministry here sometimes lends us bulldozers and sometimes men who are supposed to supervise us. I have asked the UN for help, but heard nothing back.
“It took us 13 days to build a tunnel under this house with supports to drag out the bomb. It will take us another three weeks to make the structure safe so the house doesn’t collapse. This is important engineering.”
Al-Aqsa TV, run by Hamas, had wanted to film the explosive device being removed from the Nassir residence, but Mr Miat had refused to let them. “If they did that, Hamas would then claim the credit. Why should they be allowed to do that when they have done so little to help?”
More than 100,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged during the war and around 40,000 people are still believed to be homeless. A reconstruction programme has started under the auspices of the UN, the Israelis and Fatah, and the international community pledged $5.4bn in aid. But less than 3.9 per cent of the material needed for rebuilding has got through. The Israelis maintain that without adequate security checks, the material could be used for military purpose. Fatah blames Hamas for refusing to relinquish security control of the border. Hamas says the Israelis have been deliberately keeping the residents of Gaza in destitution and Fatah has, it says, been playing politics with the lives of Palestinians. All three complain about UN bureaucracy.
The Abu-Ajwa family are waiting for cement to replace the walls in their home in Nuseirat damaged by tank shells. But their deeper concern is similar to the Nassirs; buried ordnance, in their case, in the garden. It arrived in July, at around the same time that an F-16 strike pulverised a nearby house killing a 37-year-old cousin, Riad al-Shakuti, and severely injuring his one-year-old boy.
The hole in which the bomb is sitting was filled-in 10 days ago in preparation for the wedding of a member of the family, Mohammed Abu-Ajwa, with more than 800 guests, some of whom were in the garden. “Of course we could not tell them about the bomb, they would not have come. Only the very close relations knew,” another member of the family, 30-year-old Fahdi, admitted, sitting in the garden four feet from the hole.
The 24 members of the extended Abu-Ajwa family came home after the air strike after spending three days with an aunt. “We have just one brother who is employed, he is salvaging scrap from bombed places, but he only gets $300 a month, an uncle paid everything for the wedding,” Fahdi said. “I had 10 cows and we used to sell milk, but we found them dead when we returned home. We are now waiting for Ahmed to get the bomb out.” Mr Miat said it would be at least three weeks before that happened. “I am finding it very difficult, I need to raise more money,” he said. “I thought I would rebuild my factory, but there’s no point, there’ll be another war soon.”