Factory's Ruin Bodes Ill for Gaza
KARNI CROSSING, GAZA STRIP-For 10 years, Mohammed el-Ashram journeyed each day from his home in Gaza City to his factory near the Israeli border, to supervise the manufacture of tiles.
He makes the same trek still, but now he spends his days huddling in the shadows of ruin, as he ponders the injustice of war.
"I come here just to be here," the grey-bearded Palestinian businessman said the other day. "We have lost everything."
As he spoke to a reporter, el-Ashram slouched in a tube-metal chair against a backdrop of crumpled aluminum siding, twisted metal struts, and smashed slabs of concrete - all that now remains of the El-Ashram Tile Factory, the manufacturing venture he launched in 1999.
Four male friends had come out to the wrecked factory in order to comfort el-Ashram and keep him company.
The operation is out of business now, flattened by Israeli shells and combat engineers during the final two days of the three-week-long war that ended Jan. 18.
"There are over 50 workers," he said, "and every worker has a family. Imagine how many lives have been destroyed."
El-Ashram's sorry lot is hardly an unusual condition in Gaza these days, in the aftermath of a ferocious war. More than 4,000 Palestinian buildings were ruined during the 22-day conflict, and many were private houses or businesses.
For their part, the Israelis insist they struck only at legitimate targets during the conflict.
"We did not randomly target buildings," said Mark Regev, spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "On the contrary, we acted only if there was a military reason."
In the case of the El-Ashram Tile Factory, it is difficult to discern precisely what that military reason might have been. The building is, or was, set upon a long, treeless meadow, planted in grain, that slopes down to the Israeli border, about 600 metres to the east.
Walled with thin aluminum siding, it would have offered scant protection to Hamas fighters. Besides, according to el-Ashram, the building's destruction occurred at the end of the conflict. By that time, most Hamas militants are thought to have retreated into the centre of Gaza City.
"This was pure revenge," said el-Ashram, who is convinced the Israelis destroyed his life's work out of spite. "Here, we're very close to Israel. Hamas was not here. You'd have to be crazy to fight here."
The Israeli border is easily visible from the factory site. Every now and again, a pair of Israeli army jeeps trundle along the dirt road that runs alongside the boundary.
Set on 1.2 hectares of land, the tile factory originally cost more than 1 million Jordanian dinars to build, or about $1.7 million (Cdn.) at the current exchange rate. It boasted machinery imported from Italy.
"The best quality in the world," said its owner.
The company originally sent most of its tiles to Israel and seemed poised to flourish, but a Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000, and commerce between Gaza and Israel plummeted.
Still, el-Ashram remained in business, producing tiles for decorative as well as purely functional uses, employing his seven sons and more than 40 other workers, while making a positive contribution to the economy of a territory better known for poverty and decline.
Then came the outbreak of war.
Now comes the future - a bleak one, it seems, for Mohammed el-Ashram.
"I cannot rebuild this," he said.
He added that insurance will not cover the destruction of his plant. And Israel is not inclined to pay for the destruction either, not in el-Ashram's case and not in any other instance of property damage caused by its forces during the conflict in Gaza.
"There is no precedent for such a thing," said Yigal Palmor, spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry. "This is highly political," he said. "We say Hamas carries the responsibility for the situation."
It was to punish Hamas for its rocket fire into Israel that the Jewish state launched its offensive, but countless civilians bore the brunt.
In one way, el-Ashram is lucky. He at least is alive, along with his family. But he has been ruined. He says his only hope lies with the world community and the prospect of a fund for the reconstruction of Gaza.
So far, however, reconstruction efforts have been stymied by disagreements over how to channel the money into the territory, whether through Hamas - an arrangement opposed by most donor countries - or by some other route.
Meanwhile, Mohammed el-Ashram slouches in a chair, by what remains of his factory. "This was our life," he said. "It was built to be here for the next 100 years."
Instead, it was ruined in just a few hours of war.