Former Jewish settlements in Gush Katif are being used by Palestinians for very different purposes.
By RAFAEL D. FRANKEL
Between two hollowed-out concrete structures in the back courtyard lies a concrete beam propped up from the ground on one side by a sidewalk curb. The Hebrew words "Bruchim Haba'im" (welcome) painted across its narrow width and flanked by drawings of butterflies pay testament to days only eight months past.
But aside from this lone artifact, much different images make the years of Jewish life here feel like faint echoes which resound with but a whisper off the unforgiving sand dunes Israelis once called home.
Inside the hallways, posters of the Abu Rish Brigades "martyr" Muhammad Abdel Hadi holding an AK-47 with bullet straps slung around his neck cling to the walls. Next to his likeness and Koranic verses bearing tribute to him is a Naqba ("the disaster," as Palestinians call the creation of the State of Israel) photo exhibit of destitute Palestinians made refugees by the War of Independence.
And above every doorway, on the monitor covers in the computer room and on the solution labels in the chemistry lab the curves of Arabic letters testify to the new school and its new occupants who before last September could have been shot if they showed up to the gate for just a peek inside.
Welcome to Al-Aksa University's Neveh Dekalim campus, where 600 male students have been taking classes since February in the very same, albeit renovated building once used for the largest boys' school for Gush Katif settlers.
Of course it is special to study here, said Sallam Muhammad Abu Abakar, 21, a psychology student. "We consider it an achievement of the Palestinian liberation and it [gives us] a lot of satisfaction."
While militant groups have vied over the vacated Jewish land in Gaza since Israel's withdrawal, sometimes turning the former settlements into terrorist training camps, Al-Aksa has staked out perhaps the most valuable real estate Gush Katif had to offer.
With special permission from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Al-Aksa laid claim to the entire central square of Neveh Dekalim and more in the first few days after Israel withdrew from here last September. Despite attempts by the militants to take it over, the university held its ground by first relying on certain militias to protect its holdings and later by hiring private security.
Though the history of Gush Katif is now ingrained in the mind of nearly every Israeli, the vast majority of Palestinian students questioned on the subject did not know what these buildings were before they started studying here, beyond their general Jewish origins.
When representatives of the university first went through the main school building, they found some Hebrew books, though what kind they had no clue. What became of the books? Looters burned them, said University Vice President for Public Relations Nasser Abu Il Ata.
Despite the funding crisis currently besetting the PA, the old Neveh Dekalim municipal building, supermarket, shop stalls and the gymnasium are all under renovation in anticipation of the more than 7,000 male and female students who are slated to begin studying here come September.
"Great amounts of money" are being spent on the project, Il Ata said, refusing to quote hard numbers.
Al-Aksa's investments are easy to see. Brand new computer and science labs, complete with new desktop CPUs and Bunsen burners respectively, await next semester's students on the second floor of the main building.
It is all part of what was to be a major PA strategy of using the former settlement lands for development projects. Large apartment buildings, civic centers and schools were all to be built on the land evacuated by the Gush Katif settlers. But due to in-fighting, the often closed crossings to Israel and financial problems brought about by Fatah's corruption and abysmal management of the PA budget - and now the economic siege of Hamas - this is the only project to get off the ground.
"After Israel withdrew, we heard Gaza would be nice like Dubai, but none of those promises have been achieved," said Adhem Abu Hattab, the supervisor of the English and multimedia lab. "We believe that we should build up the place and take advantage of using what was left to the Palestinian people. This is the first major PA project since the [Israeli] withdrawal and we don't have many resources."
THERE ARE grand plans for Al-Aksa beyond the current construction.
In his third floor office, Neveh Dekalim Campus Director Sayez Abu Samal has a map on his wall which delineates the three different stages of planned construction for the campus which will eventually extend over 165 dunams in the former settlement.
How far and how fast the expansion progresses depends on many factors - available budget, political climate, co-learning programs with other universities - all of which are dependent on the cycles of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in one way or another.
"There is a lot of ambiguity about the future," Samal said. "It will be difficult, but we have no intention of closing the university."
The pressing question for Al-Aksa now is where it will get its funding for the fall semester. Al-Aksa is a public university, and the economic siege laid on the Hamas government is taking its toll.
Like all PA civil servants, the faculty and staff of Al-Aksa has not been paid for the last three months. Other projects, such as a $600,000 central library which was to be funded by USAID, are on hold.
A donation of $1.5 million from the United Arab Emirates and grants of $200 each for 2,000 students from Saudi Arabia are being blocked because international financial institutions are afraid of being prosecuted by the United States under American laws which forbid funding terrorist groups.
So far, the university has made do with the fees it collects from its 10,600 students enrolled at three campuses, here, in Khan Yunis and Gaza City. Al-Aksa's cost of $12 per credit hour is the cheapest in the Palestinian territories, but it has paid the minimal fees necessary to keep things running through the end of July.
Such may not be the case come September, however, when many students will not be able to pay their tuition fees unless Israel and/or the international community choose to reinstate the funding which made its way to the PA Ministry of Education until Hamas took control of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"There were many faults in the past government and now the new government doesn't take the practical steps in dealing with the [economic] crisis," Samal said, moving his fingers methodically through his band of Muslim prayer beads. "We must deal with the real situation the Palestinians live in. [Hamas] must be realistic."
Though disagreements exist among the student body about the political situation vis-a-vis Israel, it is the interfactional Palestinian tensions that have occasionally caused problems here.
Al-Aksa has a diverse student body, "diverse" meaning it contains members of all the Palestinian factions.
Unlike their leaders who ran for seats in the PLC, Fatah supporters won the student body elections here, thus granting them the right to affix their yellow flags at regular intervals around school grounds.
While that has mildly annoyed Hamas supporters like Walid Shawah, 20, a sociology major, it is the violent clashes which have broken out on the streets of Khan Yunis and Gaza City involving the heavily armed militias of Fatah and Hamas which have stoked tensions here.
"There have been some fistfights," said the psychology student, Abu Abakar, who supports Fatah. "Yes, I've been in one or two of them."
Mostly though, the students say they get along just fine, and aside from a collective sense of triumph that takes many questions to get to, they say what their school once was is much less important than what it is and could become.
"It was very nice when the Jews were here," said Abakar, one of the only students who ever saw Neveh Dekalim in its previous incarnation.
He used to sell clothes with his father here before the outbreak of the second intifada. "We hope it can be even better."
ONE KILOMETER to the west is the beach of Shirat Ha-Yam, known to any Israeli who ever ventured down here as the nicest beach in the whole country. Today it is as pristine and soothing as it ever was; or, more importantly now, as it was in the days before the second intifada, when residents of Khan Yunis would flock to its shores with regularity.
In the absence of IDF restrictions in place for years which limited their movement within Gaza, Palestinians are now coming back.
"Two hours after the withdrawal, we were here," said Salim Salim, 39, on a recent, cloudless day a few hours before sunset. Before disengagement, he hadn't seen the beach he grew up on as a child for five years, nor been to any beach in Gaza for two years.
But rather than just basking in the sun's glow on the reclaimed Gaza sands, entrepreneurs from Khan Yunis have opened beachfront restaurants and cafes, using partially renovated settler homes - here they were mysteriously left standing, albeit gutted - as kitchens. There is one catch: you have to have the right connections to secure the property.
When Israel left here, the Khan Yunis municipality, then under Fatah control, granted the concession for this beach real estate to one man, the caf owners said. That man, whom they would not mention by name, is apparently a high-ranking Fatah official, since everyone who got their hands on the Shirat Ha-Yam property since disengagement was involved in the Palestinian security forces which are still under PA President Mahmoud Abbas's control.
One of them is Sabrij Al-Kedra, 48, the leader of the al-Aksa military brigades for Khan Yunis, who has opened up the Ibrahim Coffee Shop, into which he poured $15,000 to build tents, covered outdoor seating and even a mini Ferris wheel for children.
"In the last five years there was not any kind of amusement in this area," Al-Kedra said, explaining why he made the expensive (by Gaza standards) investment.
The deal Al-Kedra has worked out with the nameless Fatah official has him forking over 40 percent of his profits. He is content with that, he says.
Business was slow in his first week. The combination of dozens of other coffee shops and the financial crisis in Gaza have not made for a fast start out of the gate. But Al-Kedra, who says the IDF killed his son in a missile attack and twice tried to kill him, remains hopeful that the end of the school semester and the beginning of summer will turn things around, even if the Hamas government cannot.
"I am so optimistic in God, not the people," he said. "There are a lot of plans to make this a tourist area since this is the most beautiful beach in Gaza. And I can take care of foreign tourists' security if they can come here."
Al-Kedra is quick to point out that while foreigners are welcome, Israelis are most certainly not.
While a flock of foreign tourists does not appear to be around the bend, there was Salim, who came with one of his two wives and five of nine children to Ibrahim's for some coffee and a puff on the nargileh, despite being out of work.
"I come once, twice a week with my family and friends," said Salim, who is living off of savings he made as a contractor. "Even now, with the situation being bad, there are a lot of people here on Fridays."
Salim is not all happy with the caf takeover of the beach, though. The pay-for-access arrangement now in place does not sit entirely well with the man who once called this his backyard and would like to do so again.
"This is the problem now, anyone who wants to go to the beach can't because all the beach is rented by coffee shops." More accurately, they can go. But if they want to come to this beach, they have to pay.
Just a bit farther north, still well within the boundaries of what was Gush Katif, capitalism hasn't yet become king.
With the sun now just an hour above the horizon, dozens of children play in the gentle surf under the watchful gaze of Ahmad Dana, 37, one of the five lifeguards assigned duty in the one-kilometer stretch of the Khan Yunis municipality beaches.
A life guard since 1992, he also had not seen this beach since late 2000.
"The people were coming here even in the winter," Dana said. "But many more now, thousands on the weekendsâ€¦ even though there are no salaries and it is examination time for students."
Dana, wearing a fluorescent green Barcelona football jersey, blows his whistle, signaling to a couple of teenagers to stay out of the big waves about 15 meters off-shore.
"There's something special about this beach," Dana said. "There is not another place that is so clean, so pure."
At least some things never change.
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