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FEATURE: "I want the siege to be lifted": Tent life after Gaza war

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Saud Abu Ramadan and Ofira Koopmans, dpa

Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza_(dpa) _ The tent city in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya looked gloomy on this grey and rainy December day.

Small children, barefoot and dirty, play in a cold pool of rain water in the centre of the camp in the al-Atatra neighbourhood, as their older siblings come "home" from the badly damaged nearby school to the NGO tents in which they spent the past year.

One year after last winter's war, hundreds of Palestinian families still live in tents, according to the United Nations.

Following Israel's December 27 - January 18, 2008 offensive, there have been far less rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza intoIsrael's southern communities, which had previously been all but paralyzed by the frequent fire.

But 1.5 million Palestinians in the densely populated coastal enclave have also paid a heavy price.

Some 1,400 people were killed, many of them civilians.

Over 3,500 homes were destroyed in massive Israeli shelling from the air, ground and sea. Almost 3,000 more were badly damaged and more than 50,000 suffered minor damage, according to the UN.

The worst destruction was in Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya in the north near the border with Israel, and in Gaza City's southern and eastern neighbourhoods, where ground forces had penetrated.

Since then, the rubble has been cleared from the streets. But reconstruction has been barred by Israeli restrictions that only permit items such as food, medicine and limited amounts of fuel into Gaza under a tight blockade.

Cement and iron rods are not on Israel's list of essential humanitarian items. And without solid truce or a breakthrough in indirect negotiations on a prisoners swap with Hamas, Israel is not expected to let up the pressure on the radical Islamist movement ruling Gaza.

The whistling wind adds to the depression of the camp. Women keep cleaning the mud left behind by every step on the tent floor.

Some cook on kerosene stoves. Others have set up their tents near their partially destroyed homes and use whatever rooms or kitchen areas are still more or less intact.

Extension cables feed television sets in some of the tents. Mattresses are lined up on the sides. Schoolchildren do their homework on the floor.

Others have given up on school. Saleh Abu Laila, a 52-year-old with two wives and 20 children, says his have stopped studying. "They feel they have no future. That's why they don't study," he says.

"When it rained, I bought nylon and covered my tents, but water still gets in when it rains heavily. And the tents are very cold in winter and very hot in summer. I really don't know what to do. I pray that this situation will change soon," he says.

Hamas gave him 2,000 euros, Abu Laila says. "But they were not enough to buy simple furniture for the two tents we live in, let alone to rebuild a house," he adds.

"I really regret that I voted for Hamas. I hope that Fatah will control Gaza again," he says, referring to the secular movement ofPalestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Marwan al-Attar, 36 and a father of 10, did not get the 2,000-euro grant from Hamas that others whose houses were destroyed did.

"So far I did not get any help from Hamas," he says. "Maybe they did not help me because I don't support them and oppose their practices against the Palestinian people in Gaza," he adds.

"The Israelis provided me with food when I was imprisoned by them during the last war, but Hamas, which controls Gaza, never provided my kids with one meal," he says.

The half-blind man has to get by on 1,000 Israeli shekels (about 260 US dollars) which he gets every three months from the European Union through the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs.

An Israeli tank shell hit his house during last winter's war, he says. "We all thought we were going to die."

His donkey, with which he made a living by transporting goods, was killed in the shelling. He cannot spare the approximately 1,000 US dollars a new one would cost.

His family spent nearly the entire year in the tents they received from international organizations - up until 45 days ago, when they moved back into their destroyed house. His daughters had been suffering from worsening skin conditions because of the rain water and winds.

"I loaned money from a relative and rebuilt one room and toilet," al-Attar explains, heaving a sigh after almost every sentence he speaks.

"All of my kids suffer from psychological problems. The youngest ones wet their beds and suffer from lack of sleep," he says.

"I want a better future for my kids ... I want the siege to be lifted to get materials and rebuild my house. But it seems that my dreams will never come true. It has been almost one year and nothing has changed. On the contrary, things are getting worse." dpa sar da jab ok emc

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