It’s hard to decide whether to laugh or cry in response to the calls for aiding Gaza and beginning reconstruction efforts that began just hours after Hamas’ 11-day war with Israel came to an end last week.
The reasons for crying are self-evident. Israel did considerable damage to home, critical infrastructure, schools and health care facilities. Without immediate assistance, the life of ordinary Gazans will be even more miserable than it was before.
But, if the history after Israel’s last big conflict with Hamas in 2014 is any guide, most of the aid pledges being made now will never materialize.
Or, it will be misspent. Even as the last war got underway seven years later, many of the homes destroyed in the previous war had yet to be built, although there seemed to be resources to build shopping malls, elaborate mosques and the “metro” network of tunnels.
The bottom line is that money that is spent will amount to little more than a Band-Aid for a gaping wound and will probably be put in the wrong place.
The reason to laugh, albeit bitterly, is over the absurdity of the whole venture. Whatever “reconstruction” occurs now probably be turned into rubble again in a few years because Israel and Hamas are locked into a pattern of recurrent wars. The last war didn’t fundamentally change that, despite hopeful talk about renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even for the most starry-eyed humanitarians, Gaza is a bad investment.
But, let’s be honest, even without another war in the next few years, talk of any kind of serious Gaza reconstruction, that could form the basis for a functioning economy, rather than just rebuilding what was destroyed – is a joke.
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The blame for this is almost always placed on Israel and the blockade imposed on Gaza since Hamas seized control in 2007.
Without a doubt, it’s a major factor. Not only does the blockade make it very difficult to import the materials and equipment needed to rebuild, it precludes any real opportunity for real economic life to develop in Gaza.
With just 2 million people crowded into 360 square kilometers, Gaza is far too small to ever function as a stand-alone economy. It needs to be able to import much of the goods it needs and export a big share of what it manufactures and grows because its domestic market is so tiny. And it needs to be able to export people, too, because even in ideal circumstances, it would be difficult to provide enough local employment for everyone. In the early 2000s, some 15% of the Gaza workforce was employed in Israel. Today, almost no one can exit.
But even if Israel eased up on the blockade, Gaza has no less of a problem in the fact that it’s ruled by Hamas.
Hamas, not a contender
If it hasn’t grown as fat, lazy and self-serving as the Palestinian Authority, Hamas isn’t in contention for any good-government awards. It’s corrupt and inefficient, and just as importantly, it remains committed to fighting the fight for Islam and Palestine, as do its Iranian, Qatari and Turkish backers. That means armed struggle is much, much higher up than economic development on its to-do list. In fact, I wouldn’t be too sure economic development is on the list at all.
The destruction it can expect Israel to wreak on Gaza if it risks war has proven over and over again not to be a deterrent to risking a conflict. Hamas is happy to exploit the aid that comes afterward and to take advantage of any easing in the blockade for the struggle, leaving Israel with little choice but to continue imposing draconian rules. The only local industry Hamas has encouraged – including research and development and manufacturing – is rocket-building.
Between Hamas and Israel, Gaza isn't just the open-air prison that Israel’s critics often call the enclave but a giant intensive care unit. Under Hamas rule, the Gazan economy grew a measly 0.8% annually, a third the pace of population growth and one-eighth the rate in the West Bank in the same period.
Agriculture and industry contributed 34% of Gaza’s output in 1995 and 26% of its employment; in 2018, their shares had fallen to 23% and 12%, respectively. Official unemployment is chronically above 40%.
What keeps Gaza afloat and prevents it from becoming the humanitarian crisis is international aid. How much aid it gets is hard to know, since most of the money flowing to Palestine ends up with the PA while other sources, such as Iran, don’t publish annual reports. Qatar, in the last few years, has been providing about $20 million a month. Very little of it goes to development.
“The damage inflicted in less than two weeks will take years, if not decades, to rebuild,” Fabrizio Carboni, the International Committee for the Red Cross’ director for the Near and Middle East, warned on Friday. By that he presumably meant that the war damage was so severe reconstruction would take a very long time.
On the surface, that is patently ridiculous. Palestinian officials themselves say it will cost some $100 million to rebuild the damage to industry, power and agriculture, which gives a sense of the relatively small magnitude of the destruction. Similarly, the number of houses destroyed is in the hundreds and already nearly all of the 110,000 Gazans who had left their homes during the fighting have returned to them.
The reconstruction, such as it is, will be slow and halting because some donors have had enough and others prefer to give their money to re-arming. But most of all it will be because Hamas doesn’t really care enough.