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26 March 2015

Letter from Gaza: Militant groups on the border with Israel are preparing for war

By Bel Trew

Abu Mujahid, a 40-year-old commander in the Salahuddin Brigade, a Palestinian militant organisation set up to defend the Gaza Strip, has to switch cars five times on his way to meet me at a deserted farm. His bodyguards sweep the road ahead, checking pockets and confiscating phones. Over the past two weeks, increased activity by Israeli troops along the territory’s eastern border has rattled the militants. Gaza’s fighting groups – which include Hamas’s Qassam Brigades and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – are going underground.

“War is coming,” says Mujahid, as an Israeli fighter jet claws through the clouds above. “The last war wasn’t finished. Fighting could break out any minute now – and we must be prepared.”

Eight months on from the 51-day summer war of 2014 – which caused the deaths of 2,200 Palestinians, 66 Israeli soldiers and six citizens in Israel – tunnels are being rebuilt, weapons stockpiles refurbished and fresh recruits trained. These now include women, who have their own units and drill sessions.

The truce brokered in Egypt last August was built on the understanding that comprehensive peace talks would follow. The Palestinians want an end to the eight-year-long blockade of their territory. They want fishing zones extended, an airport and a seaport. Israel wants the complete disarmament of the Strip and the eradication of Hamas, the Islamist group that in effect controls it, though it is not part of the recently formed unity government.

So far no talks have materialised. Instead, Egypt has put the entire Hamas organisation on its terror list and is keeping a tight hold on the border it shares with the southern edge of the Strip. Gaza’s fighting groups are prepared, they claim, and are co-operating at a high level.

“Honestly, we’ve only used 15 per cent of our weapons,” says Abu Mujahid’s second-in-command, Abu Saif, grinning.

The groups also claim that only 1 per cent of the territory’s military tunnels were destroyed during the Israeli ground offensive that began last July. Lacking construction supplies, militants have switched from using cement and are propping up underground passageways with wood and metal. These are fitted with sleeping quarters, operation rooms, kitchens and even televisions (they can detect the proximity of Israeli jets by an increase in TV static).

The 1.8 million people who live in Gaza have three hours of electricity a day. There is hardly any drinking water and very little food. Unemployment and abject poverty – defined by the UN as having less than $1.25 a day to live on – has crept up to 50 per cent and is still rising.

Meanwhile just 5 per cent of the $5bn in aid pledged by international donors to rebuild the war-torn territory has been delivered. More than 17,000 homes were crushed in the bombardment, displacing an estimated 100,000 people who remain homeless. Many are camping in UN schools or sleeping behind UN-donated reed mats.

The eastern border is still littered with rubble. “We had just rebuilt our house from the last war in 2012 when it was hit again,” says Om Joseph, a 65-year-old woman who lost ten members of her family in 2012 and a further ten in 2014. The front of her building was gouged out by an Israeli shell that took out half the rooms in the house. UN engineers have said it could crumble at any minute – but she and her 12 children are still camping there.

The damage in Gaza is not only physical. Aid agencies are struggling to treat nearly 400,000 children for PTSD – putting many under heavy medication or sending them to Europe for treatment.

“There is a $68m funding gap in our two-year emergency response programme,” Pernille Ironside, Unicef’s director in Gaza, tells me. The fund has managed to provide support to about a fifth of the children in Gaza, but the majority of families have been left to fend for themselves.

“I can’t control my son. Every day he tries to attack me, or he screams in his sleep or goes mute,” says Salwa Bakr. Her son Hazem watched his brother Mohamed, 12, being blown apart by an Israeli navy shell on Gaza City Beach – a killing witnessed by dozens of journalists. “I buried one child in the ground and now have put the other in a mental home,” Salwa says.

In their desperation, young people are risking the illegal crossing into Israel and signing up for the militant groups to get revenge. “We’ve had a massive spike in recruitment,” says Abu Mujahid at the farm. “We have trained them well.

“What the Israelis do not realise is that this is not a game. We will fight to the end. We will fight to the death.”

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