By Alastair Macdonald
GAZA, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Whole streets lie in ruins, many thousands of Palestinians are homeless after weeks of Israeli bombing and foreign aid cash is piling up. As a builder in the Gaza Strip, this should be Anwar al-Sahabani’s big moment.
Instead, though, he sits at home, angry and sad, not just at the wounds he suffered on the first day of bombardment, but with frustration at being denied the basic supplies he needs to start rebuilding. Israel will not let in cement, steel pipes and other materials it says its Hamas enemies might use to make war.
"The fighting stopped over a week ago but people are still sleeping in the open air," said Sahabani, whose firm employs up to 100 craftsmen and labourers when working at full capacity.
"We should have started reconstruction the day the war ended. But we have no supplies." His men, like him, sit idle, he said: "I am sad and angry and I feel a pain beyond words."
Along the 45 km (30-mile) strip of Mediterranean coastline, half-finished construction sites stand silent, and, amid the ruins left by this month’s violence, families are building makeshift wood-and-plastic shelters to escape the cold.
"For two years now, we have not been able to build," Sahabani said of an Israeli embargo going back to 2007. "God knows what will happen now to the people who lost their homes."
Across town, Nabeel al-Zaeem, understands. His Palestinian Commercial Services Co. is Gaza’s top importer of cement.
Only these days, he has no cement.
"We need cement to rebuild the Gaza Strip, because of the Israeli offensive and the comprehensive destruction," he said on a quiet morning this week at his office overlooking Gaza’s blockade-hit fishing port. "But we have no raw materials."
He was able to import only a fraction of what he needed since June 2007, when Hamas, victors in a 2006 parliamentary election, seized full control in the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
NO SUPPLIES FOR HAMAS
Peter Lerner, a Defence Ministry official dealing with trade for Gaza, said Israel was helping international aid agencies in their efforts to move in the food and other vital supplies for the 1.5 million Gazans, most of whom are refugees, from families that fled or were driven from what is now Israel in 1948.
But until Israel was satisfied that cement would not be used by Hamas for fortifications and that steel pipes would be used only for plumbing and not to build improvised rockets for firing at Israeli towns, the embargo on construction material remained:
"We are working together with the international community to assist those needs that are beyond the humanitarian issues, such as building and reconstruction," Lerner said.
But he added: "We are not interested today in rebuilding Hamas, their bunkers. We are not interested in supplying them with pipes that will be used for rockets."
Amid the shaky ceasefire that has followed an offensive intended to deter Hamas rocket fire, Israeli ministers have also said this week that supplies will not re-start until Hamas frees an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in 2006.
But John Ging, who runs the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency operations supplying much of Gaza’s population with basic rations, schooling and other essentials, said getting building materials into the enclave must be a priority: "This is the number one issue," he said. "We have to get the crossing points open now to get everything that is needed to rebuild Gaza."
Cement importer Zaeem said that even if the blockade were lifted it would take years to bring in all that was needed: "We need now 8,000 tonnes a month," he said. "And even at that rate we would need three years to repair the damage."
In all last year, he said, about 20,000 tonnes came in, all from Israeli quarries -- Gaza has no cement industry. A crossing from Egypt is also largely closed, in coordination with Israel, and smuggling tunnels that provide many of the goods in Gaza’s stores cannot supply large quantities of building materials.
BUILDING BOOM OVERDUE
The World Bank says projects worth $240 million were frozen due to the blockade after Hamas took over and 42,000 workers had been laid off: "All the construction projects .... have been halted (due) to the absence of construction materials," it said.
Yet even before losing some 5,000 homes this month and sustaining damage worth up to $2 billion by international estimates, Gaza was in dire need of a construction boom. At its present growth rate, the population is doubling with every generation, creating an acute shortage of schools and housing.
"It is just not acceptable in the 21st century that 1.5 million people are imprisoned like this," said Zaeem, dismissing Israel’s security concerns about uses of cement as a "pretext".
U.N. officials have described Israel’s blockade as illegal "collective punishment" of civilians and some Israelis also criticise the policy for fueling Palestinian resentment against the Jewish state while failing to stop Hamas attacks.
"They must open the passages," Zaeem added. "We hope to live as everybody all over the world."
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s infrastructure minister, made clear this week, however, that the government, which faces an election battle against the right-wing opposition on Feb. 10, has no intention of opening up the crossings in a hurry.
"Let nobody delude themselves that we are going to open the crossings for anything but humanitarian essentials," he said.
"They can say what they want ... We don’t intend to open the crossings before Gilad Shalit comes home."
In Gaza, construction contractor Sahabani retorts: "Israel is inventing pretexts. For now the pretext is Hamas. Before it was Yasser Arafat ... It doesn’t seem to matter."
Lamenting one particular project, for 200 apartments, which his firm has had to mothball for lack of supplies, Sahabani said: "We hope there can be a truce, so that we can live like other people ... We can appeal only to God."
Asked if he thought Hamas and Israel might be able to come to terms and break the political deadlock from which he and other Gazans are suffering, he confessed to little optimism: "We have had so many disappointments that we have almost lost hope." (Editing by Ralph Boulton)