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(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
When Gaza engineer Ali Abu Shahla looks at the carcass of the Gush Katif settlement of Neveh Dekalim, he doesn't see the looters that continue to scavenge its remains or the RPG-toting militants that victoriously paraded through its streets. Rather, he sees the mecca of Palestinian education.
Following months of pressure from groups like Hamas, the international community and even eager entrepreneurs, the Palestinian Authority decided that the seat of Israel's Gaza settlement endeavor should become a university campus, according to the PA's Planning Ministry and university sources.
Indeed, Neveh Dekalim, Morag and even parts of Netzarim have been set aside for Gaza's three universities: Al-Aksa University, Al-Azhar University, and the Islamic University, respectively.
"Neveh Dekalim will be the center of learning for the Palestinians," said Abu Shahla, an Al-Aksa University board member, while touring the remains of its municipal center last week. Abu Shahla, who runs Gaza's largest engineering firm, arrived with a crew of engineers to assess the damage to the few structures still standing, and begin the process of rehabilitating what will be the Palestinians' largest university campus, at 165 dunams (41.25 acres).
The prospects are just as exciting for Al-Azhar University. "This is real land we are getting, and now we'll have real universities for the first time," said Hazen Abu Shanab, director of its public affairs office.
On the 100 dunams in Morag set aside for Al-Azhar, the university hopes to build a recreation center. No Gaza university has ever had a pool or theater. "We've never had anything like that," Abu Shanab said. He estimates that it could be 18 months before students begin taking dips in the school's pool.
That's a bit optimistic, said PA Deputy Planning Minister Samih al-Abed. While the PA has decided on building university campuses in place of the settlements, it could be months before its planners hammer out a master plan for Gush Katif. Other parts of Gaza will be used for public recreation, housing, agriculture and tourism. But "it could be months even before the rubble is removed," he said in a telephone interview Monday. The key, noted Abed, is creating an "atmosphere attractive to investors."
Not everyone is happy about it. Avner Shimoni, formerly head of the Gaza Beach Regional Council, blasted the campus idea. Shimoni, who now serves as secretary general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, added that "instead of developing Gush Katif, we will see what happens when you rear a generation of Gaza's youth to hate and murder."
Abu Shanab acknowledges that "there was much concern that the land would go to Hamas. But the PA has set these lands aside for the public interest."
Partly funded by the PA, Al-Aksa is the second-largest university in the Gaza Strip, with 11,000 students. Unlike the Islamic University, it offers liberal arts courses. It also boasts the largest teachers collage in the Gaza Strip. Until now, all of this had been crammed into its small Khan Yunis campus.
Abu Shahla proudly noted that his institution has already raised some of the funds to refurbish the Neveh Dekalim campus. Poring over plans he unfurls on the back of a sedan, he predicts they'll be able to get five years' use from the buildings before new ones can be built.
Nevertheless, with the buildings so badly looted it could take five or six months for students to enter the classrooms, said some of the engineers who had accompanied Abu Shahla. Still, the underground grid and electrical and water infrastructure remain partly intact.
According to Ambassador Bill Taylor, who heads the Quartet's Office of the Special Envoy for Disengagement, theft more than anything has torpedoed the office's greenhouse-rehabilitation project, its flagship project in Gaza, as well as its other development projects.
Abu Shahla looked around him. Looters had picked the place clean. Tiles had been stripped off the rooftops of public buildings. Pits were dug along the roads to scavenge piping. Wires were cut to melt for sale, and looters' fires still smoldered. "If the looters had a job making only NIS 50 a day, I assure you they would not have looted," he said.
According to World Bank figures, most of Gaza lives under the poverty line, earning less than $2 a day.
College is especially important in Gaza, said Abu Shahla, because "education makes the youth busy. It keeps them occupied" and off the streets.
Abu Shahla commented the PA had been "open-minded" in its decision to support turning Neveh Dekalim into a college campus. Education, he said, is a politically expedient compromise. "Nobody can squabble over it."
But still, Abu Shahla likens the new grounds to "a golden cage. We still need to fly free."
Without access to Israel or Egypt, Gaza's private sector could suffocate, taking the rest of Gaza, including its new educational institutions with it, said Taylor.
The international community will donate $750 million to the Palestinians this year. Furthermore, the G-8 has supported the special envoy's request of $3 billion annually for three years. Its goal is to boost Palestinian capacity to export its wares and cheap labor.
But Abu Shahla, a man who called himself an optimist, said: "We can't do anything without Israel changing its colors."
Taylor agreed. "Without Israel's aid [in opening borders]," he said, "they [Palestinians] can't do anything."
When asked what would happen if Israel refused to change its border policy, Abu Shahla answered: "We'll all go to hell together."