- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip | The few dozen yards of fraying blue tarpaulin and dirt-stained canvas that define the Awaja family’s living space can’t keep out the cold in winter or the dust and heat in summer.

When a strong wind blows at night, the shelter caves in on the six children sleeping inside.

The Awajas are among thousands whose houses were destroyed during Israel’s three-week military offensive against Hamas-ruled Gaza, launched in December 2008 with the aim of halting Palestinian rocket attacks.

More than 18 months later, most displaced families have found apartments or moved in with relatives, but about 225 families remain homeless, according to U.N. figures, caught in a mix of poverty, bureaucracy and a border blockade that has left them in limbo.

A bulldozer flattened the Awajas’ house on the first full day of Israel’s ground offensive, when tanks and troops swept into Gaza neighborhoods near the Israeli border.

As the family fled, bullets hit Kamal, 49, his wife Wafa, 34, and their 8-year-old son Ibrahim — who bled to death in the street.

After a brief stay with Kamal’s first wife — he has two but is separated from the first — and her seven children in their tiny apartment in Gaza City, the Awajas pitched a tent on government land near Beit Lahiya. Municipal officials told them to vacate.

“I told them I’m not leaving … I’m afraid to go back there, close to the border,” Kamal said.

They now occupy three tents and have had a sixth child, a baby girl named Leyali.

They tether the tent to the ground with cinder blocks and rugs. They siphon electricity from nearby lines to power a refrigerator, microwave, oven, TV and computer, all salvaged from their old home or smuggled through underground tunnels that connect Gaza to Egypt.

Wafa is busy constantly cleaning wind-blown dust off dishes and clothes, chasing away rats and stray dogs, and protecting belongings from thieves.

Israel’s blockade, imposed three years ago after Hamas overran Gaza, is meant to keep weapons out of the territory, but it has hampered repair of the destruction caused by Israel’s offensive by barring most construction materials.

Following an international outcry over its deadly naval raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, Israel has agreed to loosen the embargo — the first step, potentially, toward rebuilding the Awajas’ home.

“There is no place to go,” Kamal said. “So I’m staying here until they help us build our house.”