RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Over the past two weeks, a team of workers armed with concrete and yellow paint transformed Ayman Qishta's home from a casualty of Israeli-Palestinian fighting into a symbol of hope for Gaza.
With Israel's (search) pullout, some of the Palestinians who lived on the frontlines of the fighting are slowly beginning to rebuild their homes and plan for a better life.
While the Palestinian leadership says Gaza (search) is still hemmed in and effectively occupied by Israel, and Israel frets about a possible influx of terrorists, 35-year-old Qishta says Israel's withdrawal instantly changed his life.
"I can build, I can do what I want, I'm feeling secure," he said Thursday.
More than 2,700 Gaza homes were demolished and another 2,100 damaged during five years of Israel-Palestinian fighting, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (search).
The southern Gaza town of Rafah was the worst hit. Israeli soldiers in tanks and bulldozers repeatedly raided neighborhoods along the Gaza-Egypt border searching for tunnels militants used to smuggle in arms from Egypt. The mouths of the tunnels were often hidden inside the houses, Israel said.
Qishta's three-story home was damaged in May 2004 during a raid to uncover tunnels. Bullet holes scarred the walls, and an ioron door and wall were crushed by a passing tank.
Across the street, the rubble of a house sits untouched.
After the raid, Qishta did not bother repairing his home, assuming the Israelis would just hit it again.
"We were afraid they would be back," he said.
But after the 8,500 Jewish settlers were evicted last month, Qishta began to believe Israel really intended to follow through on its plan to leave Gaza, and it would be safe to fix the house.
"We felt the Israelis were going to leave and we would never see them again," he said.
He patched up the walls, added a stucco finish and slapped on a coat of paint.
The Abu Awad family is also preparing to fix up its house along the border between the Palestinian town of Khan Younis and an Israeli settlement abandoned three years ago because of its dangerous location.
Hundreds of bullet holes from an Israeli machine gun nest about 100 yards away pock the wall facing the settlement, and all the windows are broken. With the damaged wall now facing nothing more than a distant beach view, the family hired a contractor to come Saturday and start fixing the house up, said Ibrahim Abu Awad, 16.
Many other Palestinians in damaged areas, often slums or refugee camps, say they can't afford to repair their houses themselves and want the Palestinian Authority to help.
Ahmed Qishta, 36, a distant relative of Ayman Qishta's, said he does not have $1,500 to fix the bullet holes and structural damage his house suffered during an Israel raid in his neighborhood near the border.
"I'm waiting for somebody to help," he said. "Most of the people are waiting."
Palestinian officials formed a committee to discuss what to do about damaged and demolished homes. Their occupants will likely get help rebuilding or will be housed in high-rises to be built in Israel's abandoned settlements, Palestinian officials said.
Ismail Ashur, 52, does not need any help.
Workers are rapidly building a three-story house, Ashur's second, amid the wide swath of rubble along Gaza's border with Egypt. Ashur, who lives next door with his wife, is building the home to house a second wife whom he plans to marry after construction is complete.
He laid the foundation for the house in 2000 — just after the fighting started — but stopped construction as Israel's demolished rows of houses near the border.
"I was afraid they were going to reach me," said Ashur, whose home is 200 yards from the border.
Though his neighbors' houses, and even his own first house next door, were damaged in the fighting, the shell of his new home was spared.
Two months ago, when Palestinian police began deploying along the border to relieve the departing Israelis, he felt the pullout was inevitable and restarted construction. He sped up his efforts when Israel left the border Monday and rapidly finished the concrete walls of the second floor.
Ashur stood on the roof looking out over the rubble that was once his neighborhood, where little is left standing. He said he hopes the whole area will one day return to what it once was.
"I want to see my neighbors around me again," he said.