Resurrecting demolished dreams

For Amjad Shehadeh and his family, it is a second chance. On a plot of land the walls of a new home are rising to replace the one destroyed almost three years ago.

Ruba Shehadeh, left, stands with he sister next to the ruins of her house that was destroyed by the Israeli army.
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WEST BANK // For Amjad Shehadeh and his family, it is a second chance. On a plot of land the walls of a new home are rising to replace the one destroyed almost three years ago. Their new house is just one of 100 being built in the West Bank thanks to a substantial donation from the UAE's Red Crescent Authority (RCA). The organisation is funding the United Nations Development Programme in a Dh13 million (US$3.54m) project.

The original houses were destroyed by the Israeli military for what it called a failure to secure the correct building permits. A house that had taken years to save for and months to design and build was reduced to rubble in a couple of hours. Mr Shehadeh, 38, was asleep at his parents' home in March 2006 when the telephone rang at 7am. "My neighbours called me and said, 'Are you aware that there are couple of hundred soldiers and huge bulldozers are around your house?'" he recalled.

The original house was on land inherited from his father in an orchard of olive, almond and fig trees. Work started on the two-storey home in 2005 after planning was approved by the Palestinian government. The Israeli authorities later ruled the building, in the village of Beit Iksa on the outskirts of Jerusalem and surrounded by settlements, was in an area under their control as defined by the 1995 Oslo Agreement.

After months of wrangling, studying records and maps, and appeals to the Israelis, Mr Shehadeh, a PhD student who works with an educational institute in Ramallah, watched as his home was flattened. To this day, he still finds it painful to return to the site of what would have been the home where he and his wife, Ruba, lived with their three daughters Sara, eight, Layan, seven, and Duha, four. The garden around the building was also destroyed but the rubble remains.

"My house was demolished in front of mine and my wife's eyes. It is very hard to see a house that can shelter me and my family being knocked down," Mr Shehadeh said. "I cannot forget how my children were so happy to play in that house and I won't forget how they were crying. It's like feeling that your dream is demolished. You feel abandoned and tortured and unable to do anything." Now the family is in rented accommodation waiting to move into their new house, which should be ready next April.

"Now I am happy to have a chance to have a place that will give me a chance to heal my wounds," Mr Shehadeh said. The RCA-sponsored project is just one of the UAE's many humanitarian and development programmes in the Palestinian territories and Palestinian refugee camps in other Arab states. The cost of those programmes is more than US$4.2 billion since 1994, according to government figures released this year.

Assistance from the Government, the RCA and other organisations has included construction or renovation of entire housing districts, development of hospitals, schools and youth centres, and direct support to families in need and orphans across the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. One major UAE project was the Dh100m reconstruction of Jenin refugee camp to help thousands of homeless after an Israeli incursion in 2002. Other projects include Sheikh Khalifa City in Gaza and Sheikh Zayed City in Jerusalem.

"The help is from the UAE people to the Palestinian people because of our human conscience," said Abdul Rahman al Tunaiji, the public relations and media manager for the RCA. Mr al Tunaiji said anyone who could afford to donate should, "to overcome humanitarian challenges in Palestine". Until 18 months ago, many of the proposals for RCA projects in the Palestinian territories passed across the desk of Sami Makkawi, a long-time resident of Al Ain, who returned to Jerusalem as manager of the UAE Friends Society.

"I was given a chance to know my country better and to witness refugee camps and the pains, especially during the uprising period when we found a lot of people suffering from poverty and loneliness - people whose spouses had been detained or killed, who have no one to look after them," Mr Makkawi said. "They always welcomed us and prayed for Sheikh Zayed. Palestine is a precious jewel for all Muslims and Arabs. We have a mutual history with the UAE."

But in May last year the society's office, which in its six years of operation had distributed much of the UAE funding, was raided and closed by Israeli troops. Now most of the RCA's projects are carried out directly through the Palestinian Authority or UN agencies. Like most aspects of life under occupation, distributing aid and introducing humanitarian projects are often fraught with challenges.

In the West Bank, the movement of Palestinians is controlled by 630 checkpoints and roadblocks. More than 450,000 Israeli settlers live in fortified compounds on occupied land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The separation wall divides the territory further, cutting off access to agricultural land, schools and towns. The charity Salam Ya Asghar, or For the Children, is another Emirati initiative working to bring some semblance of normal life for children living under occupation. Launched this year by Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the wife of the ruler of Sharjah, the fund works with organisations including UN agencies to expand existing projects.

"This fund is typical of the UAE as it shows their generosity and responsiveness to the humanitarian crisis," said Tarek Kotb, the fund representative in Ramallah. "With this initiative, especially with the continued economic, social and humanitarian crisis, Sheikha Jawaher wanted to help provide children with a peaceful life. She was so concerned about the children being caught in the process." In the last four months, Salam Ya Asghar has been involved with various projects, including one with the Welfare Association during Ramadan, where thousands of children who had lost one or both parents were invited to celebrate iftar at parties across the West Bank and Gaza.

Among those attending was Ali Mafargeh, 14, who had never met the father he was named after. An activist with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ali Sr was killed one month before his son was born. Seated in their modest home in the village of Beit Liqia 14 years after her husband's death, Afaf Mafargeh still finds it painful to talk about the day he was shot by Israeli troops. Ali moved to comfort his mother, as he explained how he would like to work with computers when he leaves school.

"I love to read and play football," he said. "My favourite team is England." Meanwhile, in a valley not far away from the Shehadeh family's new village of Mazrah Sharqiyah, tucked between terraced hills, workers are completing two more houses funded by UAE money. One of those working on the site in the village of Silwad is Abdel Aleem Hamad, 42, who has struggled to find work since he was shot by an Israeli soldier and lost most of the mobility in his right leg.

Like many other people looking for work in the West Bank, he is grateful for the temporary employment. But for Mr Hamad, this job has even more meaning. When the house is completed, he, his wife and their eight children will move in. His house was knocked down by Israeli troops in 2006. "It was about 11am and about 200 soldiers surrounded my house," he said, during a short break from work. "They placed a curfew on the area and arrived with 25 jeeps. My children were very scared."

The family fled the house without being allowed to remove any of their belongings. Now, two years on, Mr Hamad is facing the future with optimism. His family are being given the opportunity to move on with their lives, he said as he hurried back to the building site.