JERUSALEM — Gaza will need years to recover from the damage inflicted upon the strip by nearly three weeks of Israeli bombardment, United Nations experts say, as a brief cease-fire this weekend revealed the extent to which the region's infrastructure has been damaged.
"There is damage to every part of civilian infrastructure imaginable. Water, electricity, food, shelter, everything will need aid," said Muhammed Abu Halima, a U.N. aid worker who works at a Gaza school that has been converted into a shelter. "It will take years for Gaza to recover."
Humanitarian groups are just starting to take stock of how many homes were destroyed, aided by a 12-hour cease-fire Saturday. Fighting has resumed since then, despite pressure from countries in the region and the West to agree to a more lasting truce.
The United Nations announced this week that it was launching a $115 million plan for reconstruction in Gaza, where homes, schools and hospitals have been destroyed.
"With every hour that goes by, the destruction in Gaza is furthered, and the U.N. will need to revise that $115 million plan upwards," said Chris Gunness, a U.N. spokesman.
Food and water have been scarce since last week, when thousands streamed into U.N. facilities in central Gaza to escape the bombardment in the northern, southern, and eastern part of the coastal strip. U.N. officials estimate that the current number of people taking refuge exceeds 167,000.
"We don't have the facilities, the funds to care for them long-term. Everything is scarce, and many of these people will sadly soon discover that they have nothing to return home to," said Abu Halima of the U.N.
Gaza's northeastern cities have been the hardest hit. It is from there that Hamas dug dozens of attack tunnels into Israel and used open areas as a launchpad for rockets. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially said the goal of Israel's offensive into Gaza was to clear the tunnels, but military officials say the mission in Gaza has since been expanded, as Israel looks to deal a more punishing blow to Hamas.
Human rights groups, including the Israeli legal aid NGO Gisha, are already warning that the Israeli government will be loathe to allow cement back into the Gaza Strip, after hundreds of tons of cement were used to build the attack tunnels into Israel.
"Without cement, and a great deal of funds, it's unclear how Gaza can possibly rebuild," said Abu Halima.
Over the weekend, some residents returned to the northern city of Beit Hanoun, one of the hardest hit, to survey the damage as the 12-hour cease-fire took hold.
Zuhair al-Ataf, a father of four, was one of them. He described gathering his family as they decided to flee the city and seek refuge at a U.N. facility. "I told them to take only what was necessary. We took medication for my daughter, jewelry. My son wanted to bring the TV, but of course that was impossible," Ataf said. "I knew whatever we left behind would be gone, and now it is."
This weekend Ataf found his block in Beit Hanoun completely leveled. “Whatever we left behind is gone,” he said.
The conflict is also exacerbating Gaza's already existent crises. The strip's water shortage has grown to the point where hundreds of thousands of people may have to face drinking unsafe water.
Roughly 1.2 million of the 1.7 million people who live in Gaza don't have regular access to clean water, according to a report published this week by the Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene, an umbrella group of 40 humanitarian groups that work in the Gaza Strip. The U.N. has also said that the aquifers that store Gaza's water have slowly eroded over the last decade, and are on the brink of collapse. The U.N. has long been concerned about the aquifers, saying they carry a host of water-borne diseases, including polio and hepatitis. Much of Gaza's tap water is salty — due to seawater contamination — and supplied infrequently, due to electrical outages to the pumps that are used to distribute the water.
"We tell people that only bottled water is really safe to drink, but do you know how difficult it is to provide bottled water to thousands who are displaced?" said Abu Halima. "In the current circumstances it is almost impossible."
Food distribution is also a growing concern for the U.N. "We don't have an easy way to gather or distribute food to the displaced," said Abu Halima. "And almost no one has the money to pay for food."
The vast majority of Gaza already suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to doctors who have worked there. The latest round of fighting will only further add to the trauma.
Mental health experts say PTSD particularly affects Gaza's children. With over 40 percent of the population under the age of 15, hundreds of thousands of children are currently living with PTSD.
After Israel's last offensive in 2012, the PTSD rate among children in Gaza doubled, according to the United Nation's agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
"Doctors are still working with children who were traumatized in 2012, and those who were traumatized in the 2008 war. Now everything is being brought back again, the bombings, the airstrikes, the insecurity," said Farid Zahalka, a doctor who works with the U.N. "It is trauma upon trauma."
"Children can't understand what is happening to them," said Zahalka. "They just feel afraid, they feel terrified. And we don't know if the future Gaza will have the feeling of stability and security to help them recover from these fears."
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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