DEIR AL-BALAH

Universities, military bases, theme parks and seaside bars lie beside piles of rubble and abandoned checkpoints. A decade after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, what remains of the former settlements has assumed a new identity as Hamas seeks to transform the territory into a functioning state.

At the entrance of what used to be the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a green sign bearing the logo of the Palestinian Authority reads "Welcome to the Beautiful Free Land." Nothing is left of the settlement that used to exist here: today, Islamic Jihad's black flags billow over the settlers' deserted farms.

Houses and buildings on Gaza's central ridges were razed to the ground to make way for the hospital of the Islamic University of Gaza, financed by Turkey. Not far from the hospital, schoolchildren can be seen arriving by bus at a small theme park that includes a big colorful Ferris wheel.

The Neveh dekalim synagogue now destroyed — Photo: Bloody-libu

"I'm especially happy seeing these children play where the occupiers used to live," says Ahmed, the park's manager.

To find physical traces of the Israeli occupation — which lasted from 1967 to 2005 — you must go to the intersection with Salah al-Din Road, an area frequently hit by bombings during the Intifadas, or Palestinian rebellions, of the late 1980s and early 2000s. Across the road from a onetime Israeli military base that's become a scrapyard, a Hamas surveillance post controls traffic.

Bases and Training Camps

The coastal highway begins at what once was Netzarim and continues southward, passing through Deir al-Balah and terminating at another former Jewish settlement, Gush Katif. Prior to the 2005 unilateral withdrawal ordered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it housed most of the 5,000 Israelis who lived in the settlements scattered over 40% of Gaza's area. Israeli leaders had decided that the military occupation wasn't worth the cost for the sake of so few, mostly ultra Orthodox setters.

Near the wide stretch of beach that the settlers once proudly called "Palm Beach," a so-called "Hamas Riviera" has taken shape, dotted with small bars and restaurants with exotic sounding names and colorful curtains, inviting visitors to dine with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Mohamed, 24, a waiter at a local restaurant, recalls the moment "as if it were yesterday" when the checkpoints suddenly disappeared and Palestinians were allowed to enter. "We had never seen anything like it, such a large beach, because until then only the Israelis could enter," he recalls. "It was like entering heaven."

The Deir al-Balah beach, as it's called today, is flanked by several military training camps for Gaza's various militias: not only Hamas, but also the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC).

Each militia's camp is demarcated by the colors of its own flag, each camp billowing columns of smoke high into the air. With Hamas militants driving around on large motorcycles and policemen monitoring the intersections, the former checkpoint appears to be a military base until you notice the nearby theme park.

A little girl in Gaza theme park — Photo: Wissam Nassar/ZUMA

"Asda City," or Echo City, rises on the former settlement of Ganei Tal and resembles a miniature Disneyland. "After the withdrawal we tried to turn it into a large film set, but the only movie filmed here was Emad Akel, a movie about a hero of the resistance against the Israelis, so we decided to change tack and make a theme park for children instead," says the manager Saed Abalder, 32.

The result is an aquatic park surrounded by carousels, little trains, and even a zoo whose major attraction is a lion. "We brought him in two years ago through the tunnels from Egypt," explains Abalder. "Back then he was so small he could fit into a box."

Boasting deer, ostriches, and baboons, Asda City's zoo replaced the one located in the former Jewish settlement of Netzer Hazani, of which nothing remains. The locals in Deir al-Balah tell conflicting accounts of the settlement's demise. Some recall the Israelis destroying everything before they left, while others remember the withdrawal as a victory for the resistance movement that wanted to rid the town of any sign of the occupation.

Children observing a lion in Gaza's zoo — Photo: Ashraf Amra/ZUMA

Religious Symbols

There is no such dispute over who destroyed the great synagogue of Neve Dekalim, the largest of the settlements in Gaza. It was a powerful symbol because the settlers who opposed the withdrawal occupied the synagogue, refusing to leave and confronting the Israeli soldiers tasked with the operation. When the Palestinians razed it, they left the ruins behind, clearly visible from the main road, as a testament to their determination to destroy the building.

There is no trace left of any of the other Israeli-built synagogues in Gaza, but the Palestinians left intact a basketball arena built by the settlers, still used today by locals. Similarly unscathed is the old administrative building of the Council of Neve Dekalim, its offices first used by the Palestinian Authority and then Hamas after its rise to power in Gaza in 2007. It now forms part of the campus of Al Aqsa University, which with its 28,000 students is the largest university in southern Gaza.

"We tell every student that this is where the occupiers used to live, and this is where we want to build a life for Palestinians," says Neamat Shaban Alwan, the university's vice president. "We are moderates, not extremists, and we want peace with everyone including our former enemies."

In his office hangs a map of Palestine depicting its territory as stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan, with no sign of Israel, and the office's atrium is adorned with a panoramic photo of Jerusalem's old city. Opposite the university's administrative office is the old hospital of Neve Dekalim, which now hosts classes for female students, who are kept apart from their male classmates. Many of them dress conservatively with niqabs and chadors, the full length Islamic veil and cloak, though they feature a variety of colors and styles. There's even a brand new mosque, surrounded by stalls that have developed into a small souk, or open-air marketplace.

"It's still difficult to rebuild Gaza because every once in a while there's a war that sets the clock back," laments Shaban, who pulls out a list of 45 students killed in last summer's war with Israel.

But these days in Gaza a sense of cautious optimism prevails, fueled by rumors of secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas. The possibility of talks have become the topic of the day in Gaza's markets, with locals noting the mass distribution of locally produced license plates featuring the Palestinian flag.

The plates, along with the new "arrivals" and "departures" signs at the port, are seen as tangible signs of Hamas' desire to transform Gaza into a real state. And some dare to wonder if, 10 years after the withdrawal of the Israeli army, an even more momentous change is on its way.