Alaa Radwan, head of the Popular Committee for Monitoring the Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, makes a simple calculation: “Given the pace at which construction materials are currently entering Gaza, it will be at least 20 years” before the damage caused by this summer’s war is repaired.
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The reconstruction is expected to cost more than $4 billion. Ostensibly, the Palestinian government has even more than that available. At a conference last month, donor states pledged $5.4 billion.
Another conference was supposed to be held in Cairo on October 24 at which the donors – with Israel absent – would discuss how to supervise construction imports to satisfy Israel’s security needs while enabling rapid reconstruction.
But that very day, a terror attack near the Gaza border killed 30 Egyptian soldiers. The conference was postponed — indefinitely. Soon afterward, Egypt shut its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, also indefinitely, and began demolishing houses near the border to create a 500-meter-wide buffer zone.
The United Nations has since strived to ensure the flow of construction materials into Gaza and has presented a plan for supervising these materials to the donor states, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. As a result, materials began entering Gaza last week via Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, the only one currently operating.
But the quantities approved – some 40 truckloads of cement, iron and gravel (alongside 400 truckloads of other goods) – are far from sufficient; Gaza is thought to need about 6,000 tons of cement a day. Moreover, the supervisory process is so long and cumbersome that it is seriously delaying the reconstruction work.
For instance, anyone whose house was damaged must submit an application detailing the scope of the damage and the amount of compensation sought. Representatives of the UN Office for Project Services, which is in charge of supervising the reconstruction, must then visit the house, reassess the damage, estimate the amount of construction materials needed and send a detailed list to the PA and Israel. The latter must approve both the project and the amounts.
Once Israel gives its okay, the homeowner must sign a declaration that the materials will be used solely to rebuild his house. Only then will UNOPS give him vouchers to buy construction materials from one of Gaza’s major dealers.
Construction inputs are transferred to Gaza via a company owned by the PA’s Palestine Investment Fund and stored in the warehouses of two major dealers. These warehouses are under round-the-clock supervision by both inspectors and closed-circuit cameras and are protected by high walls built especially for this purpose. Other merchants who seek to obtain material in bulk from these warehouses must agree to similar supervision.
The above requirements are just a fraction of those specified in the United Nations’ proposed supervisory procedure. The UN proposal said this procedure is supposed to enable the reconstruction and repair of around 80,000 damaged or demolished houses, as well as various public projects, including infrastructure work, planned by the Palestinian government.
Ostensibly, Israel has nothing to say about the latter. But its ability to approve or reject applications for construction materials means it bears direct responsibility for the pace of reconstruction.
Aside from raw materials, these projects need mechanized equipment like bulldozers and diggers, which are subject to a separate supervisory protocol. This includes installing GPS trackers in the vehicles so their movements can be monitored to ensure they aren’t being used to dig tunnels.
Factories that make concrete blocks must install closed-circuit cameras, which must be connected to the Internet and have backup batteries so they can function even during a power outage. Such factories must also install a special computer program to track the quantity of raw materials they receive and the number of blocks they produce.
After installing this expensive equipment, the factory must get a UNOPS inspector to certify that it has met the requirements. The inspector’s report is then sent to Israel for final approval, along with the factory owners’ names.
Without Israel’s approval, the factory can’t operate. If it tries to sell its products without it, UNOPS will cease giving it vouchers to obtain raw materials, effectively shutting down production.
And all this is just to repair the houses. As yet, there is no agreement on reviving Gaza’s economy. Exporting goods to the West Bank or Arab countries, for instance, requires Israeli permission, and this will apparently be given only to merchants who aren’t Hamas members.
Hamas objects to the United Nations’ proposed supervisory mechanism, but so far it hasn’t translated its objections into action; it, too, wants reconstruction to begin in order to soothe angry Gazans.
Meanwhile, a crisis between Hamas and Fatah is delaying the opening of other border crossings, including Rafah, because these openings are conditional on PA personnel being stationed there. The crisis peaked last week when bombs were placed in the houses of some 10 senior Fatah officials. Hamas denied responsibility, but Fatah blamed Hamas’ former interior minister, Fathi Hamad.
Over the last two days, the parties have held intensive talks in an effort to resolve their differences. They also asked Egypt to mediate, but Egypt seems in no rush to help.
On top of the slow pace of reconstruction and the intolerable bureaucracy, the crisis over paying employees of Gaza’s former Hamas government is flaring up again. Last week, around 24,000 employees received a $1,200 advance, courtesy of Qatar.
But an additional 20,000, who are classified as members of the Hamas military, have been waiting for their salaries since June. This distinction between civilian and “military” workers has infuriated Gazans; next Tuesday a general strike is planned in the Strip.
The salary crisis, whose resolution was thwarted in June when Israel blocked the transfer of funds into Gaza for this purpose, played a major role in the outbreak of this summer’s war. If no solution is found, and if Gaza’s reconstruction continues to look like the goal is more to suffocate the people than enable them to lead normal lives, we can start counting the days until the next war.