Gaza’s Zayed City development provides solace to Palestinians

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip receive support from the UAE in the form of the $62 million Zayed City housing project.

An overview showing part of the Sheikh Zayed City charity housing project against the skyline of the densely populated Gaza Strip. Heidi Levine for The National
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BEIT LAHIYA, GAZA STRIP // When the explosion from a rocket fired by an Israeli helicopter blew off his right leg in 2004, Nahed Abu Safi could only think of one thing.

“Who would take care of my family if I died?”

In the end, the severity of his injury meant he could no longer work as a painter. He could no longer provide for his wife and four children and was unable to pay the rent on his home in southern Gaza.

Soon after the attack however, he heard about a housing project that was a US$62 million (Dh 227 million) gift to the Palestinian people from Sheikh Zayed, the founding president of the UAE.

He soon qualified for an apartment in Zayed City, which were offered free of charge to Gazans whose homes had been destroyed, or who had been bereaved or wounded during the conflict with Israel.

He and his family moved in when the development opened in 2005 and remains there to this day.

“Thanks be to God, we have a home,” the 50-year-old said from his three-bedroom apartment in Gaza’s Zayed City.

The development has provided homes to hundreds of families in this besieged territory of 1.7 million people that suffers from a chronic housing shortage.

Since its completion nine years ago, the community’s 71 cream-coloured buildings have stood firm amid Israeli artillery barrages and tank incursions.

Its walls have been honeycombed with the pockmarks from air strikes and machine-gun spray from Palestinian-on-Palestinian clashes.

Yet residents here have been able to carve out some solace despite the turbulent surroundings.

“We’re in a difficult situation, but at least we have a home,” said Mr Abu Safi, whose children have had to forgo school to earn Dh 55 a day peddling trinkets in the streets.

Zayed City was designed to relieve the suffering of people such as Mr Abu Safi as well as offer affordable housing to newly married couples. The development was also designed to be much bigger, with nearly 30 more 12-storey apartment buildings, residential parks, schools, shopping centres and medical clinics, said Naji Sarhan, Gaza’s deputy housing minister.

But then Palestinian politics got in the way.

Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, prompting Israel to impose a crippling blockade of the territory to punish the Islamist group, which is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. The blockade severely restricted the movement of goods and people in and out and, Mr Sarhan said, put a stop to most big construction projects.

There were also issues of corruption with the Palestinian Authority under the late Yasser Arafat that strained relations with Zayed City’s planners in Abu Dhabi, according to news reports published while the development was under construction.

Still, despite all the obstacles, what was built of Zayed City has helped relieve Gaza’s chronic housing crisis, Mr Sarhan said. Zayed City, for one thing, houses more than 6,000 people — double the intended number.

“We are short 70,000 apartments and we still need an additional 13,000 every year just to keep up with population growth,” he said of Gaza’s housing crisis.

“We need more — many more — projects like Zayed City, because support from outside is crucial to relieve our housing crisis.”

Like the rest of the territory, the city has not been spared of war with Israel. Because it is located in the far north, in the city of Beit Lahiya, Zayed City is close to the concrete wall that rings Gaza and from where Israeli forces often raid.

Residents recall several Israeli airstrike that struck one of the city’s buildings during Israel’s three-week war on the territory that began in December 2009 and killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians.

Tanks sometimes loom on a perch that overlooks the development, they said, while fighting sporadically erupted in and out of the buildings between Hamas and its rival Fatah movement when the Islamist group took control of Gaza seven years ago.

“You never knew when the bullet would come to find you,” Deeb Abu Rukbah, 49, a resident of Zayed City who recalled the Hamas-Fatah clashes.

But for Amira Abu Shahar, 64, the difficulties of living in Zayed City are relative. During the 2008-2009 war, Israeli forces bulldozed her two-level family home in the northern village of Beit Hanoun.

She and several of her four children and ten grandchildren were left homeless, but she was able to buy a three-bedroom apartment in Zayed City with a US$40,000 (Dh147,000) donation from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

“I’m comfortable here,” Ms Abu Shahar said from her living room, which her children helped decorate with a coffee table and new sofas. Her new home lacks the memories of the one that was destroyed. But she has attempted to move on, she said.

“Isn’t it pretty?” she said while pointing to her living-room furniture.

For Mr Abu Safi, that comfort also is a relative one. He and his wife would rather not have to live for free in an apartment complex. But like most Gazans, there are many things that they wish they could have.

“We have to live with what God makes for us,” he said.