- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Real estate prices are skyrocketing in Gaza amid optimism that Israel’s planned withdrawal from the war-torn coastal strip next month will attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and a wave of development.

The most dramatic jump in value has been for properties adjacent to Jewish settlements and military bases that the Israeli army turned into security zones over the course of the Palestinian uprising.

Declared off-limits to Palestinians, the no man’s land areas have more than doubled in value in the past year, say real estate brokers and landowners.

“Prices are rising because people have hope now,” said Salah Hirzallah, a broker based in Gaza City. “People feel that once Israel is out of Gaza, the whole economic situation will improve. At this point, buying a piece of land is the best investment.”

The surge in demand is being driven by Palestinian businessmen who foresee industrial park projects near the border with Israel and tourism development along the Gaza coast.

Twenty-one Jewish settlements with an estimated 8,500 residents occupy about one-fourth of land in Gaza, which is about twice the size of Washington and home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

But the land inside the Israeli communities is publicly owned and won’t be available to developers, at least not immediately after the pullout.

The Palestinian Authority reportedly is training thousands of security officers for deployment around the evacuated settlements to prevent looting and anarchy.

Though there have been no final decisions on how evacuated territory would be developed, talk of industrial parks along the border with Israel and a strip of hotels along the coast has whetted the appetites of local Palestinian businessmen.

Mr. Hirzallah said quarter-acre plots of beachfront property had been valued at $1.5 million, explaining that Gaza’s small size inflates land prices.

The optimism has spurred speculation that investors from the Palestinian diaspora as well as the Persian Gulf will be examining Gaza for development possibilities.

“There is a great deal of interest from Palestinians as well as international investors,” said Salah Haider Shafi, a Gaza-based economist. “But there is a lot of uncertainty. Investors need to have clarity on a lot of issues, like access.”

The Israeli military has cleared wide swaths of land around the settlements as a buffer to protect Jews from attacks amid the Palestinian uprising, which began September 2000.

The Netzarim settlement is an island fortress visible from the Gaza coast. But the land around the settlement soon might be developed into parks, the broker said.

Real estate near crossing points between Israel and Gaza has become especially attractive.

At the northern edge of Gaza, the Erez terminal has been a transit point for tens of thousands of Palestinian workers en route to jobs in Israel and is slated to be the departure point for the planned “safe passage” highway connecting Gaza and the West Bank.

In the first months of the uprising, an Israeli bulldozer destroyed Ata Atieh Sweliem’s six-room house. Later, his orchards covering more than 2 acres were razed.

Now, against the backdrop of Israeli construction crews walking at the site where the Erez terminal is being expanded, he can only point out the churned-up mound of earth where his home once stood.

Getting too close risks drawing fire from Israeli lookout posts in the distance.

But in recent weeks, real estate brokers have offered him almost three times the original value of nearly $35,000 per acre.

“The fact that my land is worth three times as much now gives me great hope. In another year, whoever buys could [triple],” he said. “If a businessman with money comes and wants to set up a factory, I want a stake.”

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