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Housing's not a home, due to dispute

Meant as a gift, a Gaza Strip housing complex sits empty as officials haggle.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published December 12, 2004

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Housing sits vacant at the Sheikh Zayed Township in the Gaza Strip. The project, a gift of the United Arab Emerates, is complete, but despite a desperate need for housing, no one has been allowed to move in.
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Vacant housing and a Palestinian police officer are seen reflected near bullet holes in a mosque window at the Sheikh Zayed township in the Gaza Strip.
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
The sun sets over the bullet-ridden mosque. the $55-million project was intended as a gift to poor Palestinians.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - When Israeli bulldozers leveled parts of the Jabalya refugee camp this fall, Achsa Abu Gaden was among scores of Palestinians left homeless. Now she is living in a flimsy tent as chilly winter winds blow in from the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet just a mile away, 736 new apartments are sitting vacant. Although the units were finished months ago, the only people in sight are Palestinian police patrolling the eerily empty grounds.

Sheik Zayed Township, a $55-million project, was intended as a gift to poor Palestinians from the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates. Instead, it has become a source of friction between the UAE and the Palestinian Authority, which wanted to sell the units.

So contentious is the matter that neither side wants to discuss it.

"It is a humanitarian project and we hope things will be sorted out in the future," said Ibrahim al-Abed of the UAE's Ministry of Information. "I'm sorry but that is all I can say about it."

One of the most progressive rulers in the Arab world, Sheik Zayed transformed a collection of small desert emirates into a thriving commercial hub with high-rises, luxury hotels and vast shopping malls. Before his death last month, Zayed spent billions of his country's oil wealth helping residents of Third World areas.

Construction of the township began in early 2002 at the edge of the Jabalya refugee camp, home to more than 100,000 Palestinians. Knowing the Palestinian Authority's reputation for corruption, the UAE put a German company, DIWI Consult International, in charge.

The project seemed jinxed from the start.

The Palestinian Authority was supposed to pay the import duties on equipment and materials, all of which had to be shipped through Israel. But, as the political situation worsened, Israel held up tax refunds owed to the authority, which couldn't meet its obligations. Contractors paid the duties, but had to cut the number of apartments from 880 to 736 to stay within budget.

As violence between Israelis and Palestinians increased, work proceeded fitfully.

"The project is not very complex but what was complex were the conditions - we had closure of borders, we could not get materials, we had people being shot at," said Husam Al-Qarra, DIWI's project manager.

Nonetheless, construction was completed at the end of August, and the project turned over to the Palestinians. Compared to the gray squalor of surrounding areas, the township looks decidedly upscale.

All apartments have three bedrooms and 1,200 square feet, spacious by local standards. The buildings cluster around landscaped courtyards with colorful playground equipment, paved walkways and trash containers - all virtually unheard of in Palestinian sections of Gaza.

The first phase also includes a school, commercial space and a plaza with fountain and gazebos.

The township was move-in ready, but another problem had emerged. With an estimated 60 percent of Gaza's 1.3-million people living in poverty, the UAE wanted the apartments to be free. But the Palestinian Authority had begun taking $5,000 down payments.

The rationale was that "people would buy the apartments at reduced rates and the money would be plowed back into more houses," Al-Qarra said. "We also had the issue of maintenance - the apartments have to be maintained, the roads have to be maintained but the (authority) is not capable of doing any maintenance because it doesn't have any cash."

But the UAE insisted the apartments could not be sold because they were a gift from Sheik Zayed. The authority backed down, and the two sides formed a committee to review applications from prospective tenants.

"There is a huge demand for these apartments," Al-Qarra said. "The idea is to carry out a selection process that is fair and transparent."

For now, the place is a ghost town. No vehicles sit in the neatly striped parking lot. No children play on the slides or kick soccer balls on the grass. The fountain has been turned off, and the geraniums are dying from neglect.

Several of the buildings are scarred with bullet holes from October, when Israel invaded northern Gaza to root out militants who had been firing rockets into a nearby Israeli city. Dozens of windows were broken and a generator room destroyed, but there is no money for repairs, Al-Qarra said.

Another casualty was the township's striking blue-domed mosque, caught in the cross-fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen. Interior columns are riddled with bullet holes, and magnificent stained glass windows were shot to shards.

Although there is enough vacant land to build 2,800 more units, further work has been put on hold. In the meantime, homeless Gazans are shivering in the rubble of the Jabalya camp, where Israeli forces destroyed dozens of buildings during their fall offensive.

Abu Gaden, in her 60s, shares a pink and blue tent with her husband, his second wife and children from both marriages. She didn't know a committee was reviewing applications for the apartments; she didn't even know Sheik Zayed Township existed.

"Nobody has told us anything about this," she said.

Fared Shahin, a retiree, lives within sight of the township, whose progress he has watched over the past three years.

"We don't know why these apartments are still unoccupied," he said. "Fortunately, I have a house, but we hope they give these apartments to poor families, not to to high officials or people who work for the Palestinian Authority."

And, without criticizing the authority or the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by name, he voiced a common sentiment.

"I wish," he sighed, "there was a Palestinian leader like Sheik Zayed."

[Last modified December 12, 2004, 00:32:19]

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