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OPT - Cast Lead Aggression 1st Anniversary, Day 23: Coming Home - Winter in Tents in Juhr Ad-Dik, Middle Gaza

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Lives Destroyed

Series of Personal Testimonies, Reveal How One Year after Operation Cast Lead, Life in Gaza is Not Back to Normal

Day 23: Coming Home - Winter in Tents in Juhr Ad-Dik, Middle Gaza

During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces completely destroyed at least 3,600 homes, displacing over 20,000 men, women and children. The Goldstone Report concluded that the majority of these houses were destroyed illegally. In the largely agricultural Juhr Ad-Dik area of Gaza district, Israeli forces completely destroyed 124 homes and partially destroyed a further 27. Almost a full year later, hundreds of people in this area are still living in tents as Israel's unlawful siege continues to prohibit the entry of basic building materials into the Gaza Strip. Al Mezan interviewed Salem Abu 'Iyada, the mayor of Juhr Ad-Dik and local residents who tried to go home on 18 January to see how their community is coping as the winter advances.

Juhr Ad-Dik in Ruins

"Welcome to our destroyed neighbourhood," says the mayor of Juhr Ad-Dik, Salem Abu Iyada, before explaining that the official name of the area is Wadi Gaza (Gaza Valley). Over the years, local residents, mostly day labourers, small-scale breeders and chicken farmers, came to refer to the valley as Juhr Ad-Dik (the place where the cockerel lives). Juhr Ad-Dik is one of several neighbourhoods virtually levelled by Israeli forces after local residents had fled. The absence of fighting in these areas while the destruction was carried-out raises serious questions about whether the destruction was militarily necessary, and thus lawful.

The Abu Msa'ed family were some of the last people to flee the area. Sana Abu Msa'ed, 19, explains, "By 6 January, everyone in the area except for us had fled. We were really scared but we kept thinking that the Israelis would leave. We live near the border with Israel and we've lived through invasions before. Usually, they only come in for a few days at a time." The Abu Msa'ed family spent several days gathered in one room as Israeli bulldozers tore down their neighbours' homes. "We were really scared during this time," says Sana, "Especially during the night. The night before we left they shelled the west side of our house, destroying one of the rooms. When neighbours called us on 6 January to say they could see the tanks coming up the hill towards us, we decided it was time to go. We grabbed a few clothes, gathered up the goats and went on foot to stay with relatives in Nusseirat refugee camp."

Along with tens of thousands of other displaced civilians, the Abu Msa'ed family tried to return to their home on 18 January after the declaration of two unilateral ceasefires. Thuraya, 23, Sana's sister-in-law who lives with them explains, "It was a shock. A massive shock. There was rubble everywhere. Our house had been completely destroyed. We weren't even sure exactly where it had been." Sana continues, "We lost everything we had, the washing machine, the TV, our beds, the toilet, all of our kitchen tools...There was nothing left, except for one pot."

Nowhere to go

The Abu Msa'ed family went to stay with relatives for around a month while they built tin shacks and put up make-shift tents on the ruins of their former home. Thuraya explains that despite receiving some financial assistance for rent they have no-where to go, "We're Bedouin," she says, "We live a Bedouin life. Most of the houses around here were destroyed and we can't go to rent in the town. All of our goats and chickens are here, where will we put our animals?"

The Abu Msa'ed family have little faith in UN assurances that their home will be rebuilt, "They keep telling us that they'll rebuild but we don't know when it will be. We've been living in tents for nearly a year now. I think they are false promises," says Thuraya.

According to Salem Abu Iyada, Juhr Ad-Dik's mayor, whose own home was also torn down by invading Israeli forces, 150 families in the area are still living in tents. His own family are living partly in tents, and partly in a neighbour's home. He's gravely concerned about the public health of his constituents as the winter advances. "When the first rains fell, they blew away the tents. The tents don't protect us from the rain or the cold. They are not suitable for human beings. Why are we being forced to live like animals?" he asks. Salem is also frustrated by the lack of action to rebuild. "We've been to the UN to ask for help for the people in this area. We collected figures on all of the damage caused, but nothing has been rebuilt. The summer was tough because of all the insects, but the winter will be even tougher."

Despite a UN warning that homes must be urgently constructed before the winter sets in, prospects for rebuilding remain bleak as Israel continues to prohibit the entry of basic building materials into the Gaza Strip. "The winter will be particularly hard on the children of Gaza, whose capacity to withstand the rigours of a cold wet winter has already been severely undermined by a marked deterioration of basic services," said Maxwell Gaylard, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory in November 2009. Two months later, reconstruction has yet to start.