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Through four wars, toll mounts on a Gaza neighborhood

(Palestinians walk along Al-Baali Street next to debris of homes heavily damaged by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Since 2008, more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed in four wars, according to the United Nations. AP Photo: Felipe Dana)

By ADAM GELLER and FARES AKRAM, BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP):- The electricity is out again tonight in what’s left of Zaki and Jawaher Nassir’s neighborhood. But from the shell of their sitting room, its wall blown open by Israeli missiles, twilight and a neighbor’s fire are enough to see by.

Here, down a narrow lane called Al-Baali, just over a mile from the heavily fortified border separating northern Gaza and Israel, cinderblock homes press against each other before opening to a modest courtyard below the Nassirs’ perch.

Until this neighborhood was hammered by the fourth war in 13 years between Israel and Hamas militants, the Nassirs often sipped coffee by a window, watching children play volleyball using a rope in place of a net. Other days, the couple looked out as relatives pulled fruit off the yard’s fig and olive trees.

Now they spend day after day surveying the wreckage of the May 14 airstrike from broken plastic chairs while awaiting building inspectors, the gaping holes in surrounding homes serving as windows into their neighborhood’s upheaval.

In the skeleton of one building, children play video games atop a slab of fallen concrete. In another, a man stares out from beside a bed covered in debris, ignoring the ceiling fan drooping overhead like a dead flower. The smell of pulverized cement and plaster dust hangs in the air.

Each afternoon, demolition workers arrive to hack away at this real-life stage set so that the Nassirs and their neighbors can start rebuilding — again.

“We have no peace in our lives and we expect that war can happen again at any time,” says Zaki Nassir, who lost a nephew from the household across the yard in the first war, another from next door in this year’s war, and whose home is still scarred by shelling during the third war.

The story of the Nassirs, their neighbors and the toll of four wars is Gaza’s story.

Since 2008, more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflicts, according to the U.N. While many were fighters for Hamas or other militant groups, more than half were civilians. Thousands have been injured. On the Israeli side, the death toll from the four wars stands at 106, officials say.

The Islamic militants, who reject Israel’s right to exist, have fired thousands of rockets across the border during the conflicts, operating from a maze of underground tunnels. Israel, one of a number of countries that label Hamas a terrorist organization, has repeatedly hit the Strip with overwhelming firepower that, despite its high-tech precision, continues to kill civilians.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has likened Israel’s periodic offensives to mowing an unruly lawn. But Israel’s policy of degrading Hamas — and inflicting a toll designed to undermine its public support — makes little pretense of resolving Gaza’s deepening crisis. And international efforts focus only on relief and reconstruction. Meanwhile, each war has boosted approval of Hamas, often when it was flagging.

All told, the wars have done more than $5 billion in damage to Gaza’s buildings, roads, electrical and water systems, roughly double the Strip’s annual economic output. Nearly 250,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed.

The wars, coupled with a crippling blockade and the fallout of infighting between Palestinian factions, also have scarred Gaza in ways that can be difficult to quantify.

“It’s not (just) about you are losing a building. You are losing the hope that things will get better,” says Omar Shaban, an economist who runs a think tank in Gaza City. “Forty percent of the population was born under siege.”

Gaza’s crisis is rooted in events that came long before Hamas seized control in 2007. More than half of those packed into the Strip are from Palestinian families who fled or were driven from what is now Israel during the 1948 war over its formation. But the recurrent fighting and the blockade of recent years have made life in Gaza far worse.

Six years ago, U.N. officials warned that wars and economic isolation had done so much to intensify Gaza’s “de-development” that it risked becoming uninhabitable by 2020. Since then, the Strip’s 2 million residents have endured yet another war, even as the economy teeters, with unemployment close to 50 percent, among the world’s highest.

“Every year we write that, OK, Gaza hit rock bottom,” says Rami Alazzeh, a U.N. economist who has studied the long-term costs. “And every year we repeat the same sentence because, actually, it gets worse and worse.”

The Nassirs and their neighbors, many holding on to memories of life before Gaza was so embattled, are all too familiar with that narrative of despair. But they resist it, even after a fourth war.

“This is what we have,” Zaki Nassir says. “We have to live.”

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