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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Despondent over the slow pace of post-war reconstruction, displaced Gazans have begun to return to their damaged homes, patching up the structures with cinder blocks and plastic sheets and living in the unstable and unsafe buildings while they wait for promised aid to arrive.
The returns reflect a failure by local authorities and the international community to rebuild Gaza after a devastating war between Israel and Hamas militants last summer. Officials say most of the more than $5 billion of international aid that was pledged never materialized, and returning residents say that small subsidies they received — and their patience — have run out.
"We have lost hope. There is no hope and nobody is interesting in helping us," said Mohammed Afana, a 27-year-old resident of Shaaf, a neighborhood in eastern Gaza City.
An estimated 18,000 homes throughout Gaza were destroyed during the 50-day war, displacing 110,000 people, according to the United Nations. Less than 10,000 people are still living in U.N. schools that have been turned into shelters.
Shaaf, located close to the Israeli border, was among the hardest hit districts. Israeli ground forces took up positions on the eastern edges of the neighborhood, and Hamas said that its fighters engaged Israeli forces in the area.
An alley off the main street leads to a neighborhood of battered homes. In the middle of the neighborhood lie the remains of the four-story building where Afana and his extended family once lived.
After the war, the United Nations gave families small subsidies to rent apartments elsewhere in Gaza while their homes could be repaired. Afana received $1,300 — enough cash to support his family for three months. He then moved into a crowded home with his wife's family.
Weeks ago, he decided to return to the damaged first floor of his original home with his wife, two children, parents and a sister. The top two floors of the building are destroyed, and chunks of concrete and twisted metal bars dangle down. Most of the exterior walls on the ground and first floors are destroyed.
Although the house is unsuitable for living, the Afanas rebuilt some exterior walls with secondhand cinderblock. The rest are covered with huge blankets or plastic sheets.
"We can't find something better. I wish we can find an apartment with a rental subsidy. We would move immediately if we found one," Afana said, standing in front of a makeshift wall make from different-colored bricks.
Inside the home, the kitchen has been turned into a bedroom, since it still has a wall. Openings in the remaining walls are covered by wooden boards. There are no windows and the floor tile is pocked and uneven.
"Every day, every week, the wind rips off the sheets. That's how we live," he said. "Death is more honorable than this life."
One of five brothers from a family of builders and construction workers, Afana said he could rebuild the home in two weeks if cement and money were available.
In all, hundreds of neighborhood residents, including his brother's family living upstairs, have returned to their bombed-out homes.
Such scenes are a far cry from what was envisioned when world donors pledged $5.4 billion to rebuild Gaza in October, just weeks after the fighting had ended.
Frode Mauring, the U.N. Development Programme's special representative, said he believes only 5 to 10 percent of the pledges have been delivered.
"This is a huge concern," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's a shame that not everybody has been helped."
There are many sources of blame. Donors have not followed through on pledges. Israel has been slow in allowing construction materials into Gaza, though in recent months, it has worked with the U.N. to set up a mechanism to allow larger quantities to enter.
But more than anything, an ongoing battle between Hamas and the rival Palestinian Authority appears to have paralyzed reconstruction efforts.
Hamas seized Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces in 2007, and despite a reconciliation deal last year, Hamas remains firmly in control. Abbas' Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which governs in the West Bank, has demanded a foothold in Gaza, saying only it can ensure reconstruction proceeds properly.
Since December, only 150,000 tons of rubble was cleared from east Gaza City — less than 10 percent of an estimated 2 million tons that need to be removed, according to Mauring.
Mauring said the U.N. had hoped to provide rental subsidies for two years. "The fact that from time to time there has not been enough money is very regrettable," he said.
Israel launched the military operation last July in response to heavy rocket fire from Gaza by Palestinian militants.
More than 2,100 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed in the fighting, while 72 people died on the Israeli side. Israel has blamed Hamas for the heavy civilian death toll and damage to residential areas, pointing to the group's use of crowded neighborhoods for cover while firing rockets.
About a dozen families received some relief in temporary trailer caravans donated by Jordan and Oman. In Shaaf, some trailers have now been placed inside of gutted homes.
The wealthy Gulf state of Qatar is also giving people a glimmer of hope. Qatar, the largest single contributor at Gaza's rebuilding conference with $1 billion pledged, reached an agreement with Israel to deliver construction materials for Qatari-funded projects.
Israel recently began allowing 1,000 tons of cement into Gaza each day for the Qatari projects. Qatar said it will rebuild 1,000 housing units and announced that three families were given $10,000 stipends to kick off the reconstruction.
The three beneficiaries were brothers from the Abu Jamea family, which lost 24 members in an Israeli airstrike that destroyed their apartment building in July.
Since then, Bassam Abu Jamea, whose pregnant wife and three children were among the dead, has been living in a rental home not far from the rubble.
On a recent morning, Abu Jamea woke up to the sound of officials visiting the site. Among them was a Qatari official who told him he had been selected for the project.
"It goes without saying. Our lives have begun to be happy again, because we will have a new home again," he said.