After 50 days of shelling, thousands of deaths and $8 billion worth of damage, life in Gaza has returned to a shattered state of quiet. It may take 20 years to repair this beleaguered strip of land just 44 miles south of Tel Aviv. But when I came here this month to see how the area could be transformed, everyone seemed to be muddling through despite the rubble left behind.

It wasn't easy. The truth is there's virtually nothing being rebuilt in Gaza. The grocery stores were dusty and almost bare, with little left on the shelves but cookies and rotten eggs. Salt water poured from the taps whenever I showered, leaving my body sticky and smelling of the sea. Meanwhile, Israeli drones buzzed across the sky like giant mechanical wasps, watching everything below.

Now, as frustration mounts, many Gazans privately admit that the problem is not just the damage from the Israeli bombardment, but also the damage created by Hamas, the Islamic group that rules this coastal enclave.


(REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)

Call it the double occupation. Despite the rosy public opinion polls, Hamas seems to be widely loathed in this coastal Mediterranean wasteland. Getting a quote, of course, is nearly impossible. In August, the Islamic group not only hung 18 alleged spies in a public square in Gaza City, but also arrested roughly 300 Fatah militants and other dissidents for an unspecified series of crimes.

This crackdown has inflamed people's anger here, but made them even more reluctant to talk. Gaza is so small — just 139 square miles — and people here are so closely knit that it's hard to remain anonymous. Any little detail you reveal to a reporter can compromise your identity and help the authorities — whether Israeli or Hamas — trace back to you and your contacts within a couple of hours.

But if a formal interview is rare, the air of frustration here is unmistakable. Everyone — from grocers to students — offers a brief outburst, a quick sentence, an aside, a look of despair or a knowing glance that shows their desire for a Palestinian spring.

During the war, many hoped Hamas would win, that Israel would lift its blockade and the area's borders would magically reopen. But now many see that Hamas, with its strategy of launching a daily barrage of rockets at southern Israel, actually achieved nothing.

The truce, which the two parties signed on Aug. 26, is little more than a partial reopening of the Egyptian border to bring in building materials and humanitarian aid. Everything else has been postponed for a larger agreement, which remains elusive.

Not only is the temporary truce identical to the one Hamas signed with Israel after the 2012 war; it's identical to the one Egypt — a country that's also reviled here — proposed after the first week of Israeli airstrikes, when the death toll was 20, not 2,100.

The war in Gaza may have started as one against Israel, but many here say it has also become a civil war, one fought between Palestinian factions, — between Hamas and Fatah and the various groups under their purview. These rivalries have done little but breed incompetence and stagnation. The Palestinian delegation to Cairo, for instance, which is in charge of rebuilding Gaza, doesn't include a single economist or businessman.

Many Gazans still believe that violence is their only hope, that as long as their Jewish neighbors feel safe, no Israeli government will negotiate for a real and lasting peace. But almost everyone I spoke to agreed that firing rockets into Israel — most of which were thwarted by the Iron Dome — makes no sense without a political strategy to end the blockade and the wider conflict.

Now, as Hamas and Fatah are busy arguing with each other and among themselves, yet another generation of Gazans is doomed to know little more than war, violence, poverty and hunger. Thousands have already left for Europe, braving the dangerous journey to countries such as Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Some have perished along the way. But for those who leave, however, the risk seems far less troubling than staying in a place where foreign donors contribute millions but the bulk of the money goes to weapons for the next impossible war.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has eschewed rockets for bricks. Thanks to his donors, the West Bank — for all its problems with mismanagement, corruption and Israeli settlements — continues on its path toward legitimate state building. In Ramallah, getting a loan and opening a café is easy, and many refuse to pick up a stone for fear it might scratch their new cars — at least according to Gazans outside the city who both long for and resent Ramallah's bubble of normality.

The only true normality I felt in Gaza came at sunset, when I stood on the beach, dipped my feet in the water and watched the fishermen cast their nets in the distance. Soon the sky grew dark. And for a brief moment, I could hear nothing but the waves crashing against the shore. It was quiet, almost peaceful.

It was a mirage. Before long, the Israeli spy drones once again buzzed across the sky, and as I walked back to my hotel, I retraced my steps along the beach in someone else's footprints for fear of stepping on an unexploded shell from an Israeli F-16.