Analysis |

Gazans Have Been Left Without Shelter, Electricity or Jobs – and the Road to Reconstruction Is Long

The relations among Israel, Egypt and the United States in the reconstruction effort are complex and have economic implications for Israel and Egypt

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man pulls his luggage while passing the rubble of a destroyed building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, earlier in May.
A man pulls his luggage while passing the rubble of a destroyed building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, earlier in May.Credit: Adel Hana,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The largest furniture factory in the Gaza Strip, which was owned by brothers, Iyad and Nihad al-Sawafiri, was among the first to hook up to the solar electricity grid in the industrial zone near the border with Israel. The grid, construction of which began two and a half years ago with the assistance of a generous World Bank grant, generated 7.5 megawatts a day.

That’s not a lot, but it was enough to ensure that the factory had a regular electricity supply – permitting the plant to increase production and boost its workforce by 50 people. During this month’s hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the factory was hit in an Israeli air strike and completely burned down.

The industrial zone where it was located was created in 1996 after the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. It was considered a protected zone that was immune from Israeli attack. Dozens of large and small factories were built there, including a Coca-Cola bottling plant, a cookie factory and the largest plastic pipe plant in the Palestinian territories. The businesses provided thousands of jobs. Now, however, the Sawafiri brothers are wringing their hands, not knowing where they can find the millions of shekels that it is thought it will take to rebuild their factory.

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The life’s work of Mohammed Abu Matar, a small 3-D printing business – the only one of its kind in the Strip – was also completely destroyed. It provided medical supplies to the hospitals in Gaza and worked in cooperation with international companies. Abu Matar is now waiting to see if some type of arrangement will be created to help him rebuild his factory, but he knows he won’t be the first in line.

People sit near the rubble of their houses which were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, this week in Gaza.Credit: AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS

According to preliminary reports from the United Nations, some 17,000 residential units were damaged or destroyed in Gaza in this month’s fighting, along with 53 schools, six hospitals, 11 medical clinics. Roughly 75 percent of the territory’s government institutions and police and security installations also suffered damage.

In addition, six high-voltage power lines providing electricity to various parts of the Strip were damaged, along with sections of its water supply system. The Electricity Ministry in Gaza has already announced a major curtailment of the number of hours a day in which electricity is supplied, now to be limited to three or four hours until the power lines are repaired.

The work will only be performed if staff at the Israel Electric Corporation don’t make good on their threat not to fix the lines unless two missing Israeli civilians in Gaza and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers there are not returned to Israel.

According to the assessments by the Palestinian Economy Ministry in Ramallah, the damage to factories and businesses in Gaza could dramatically increase the unemployment rate there from 56 percent to about 70 percent. And the rebuilding of Gaza’s economy could very well take years, it is thought, even if foreign donations begin arriving within a short time.

Promised donations

According to reports from Gaza, life is slowly returning to normal. People are heading to the beach and to cafes, business owners are beginning to pick up the pieces and home owners are inspecting damage. But “normal life” is a elastic concept, and promises of aid and rehabilitation, such as the Egyptian promise to facilitate the transfer of $500 million, tend to disappear somewhere along on the way between the announcement and the bank.

Palestinians sit on chair amid the rubble of their houses which were destroyed during the Israel-Hamas fighting, in Gaza.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Gaza’s residents remember how after Operation Protective Edge, the war that Israel and Hamas fought in 2014, Egypt hosted a major conference of donor countries that generated commitments worth $5.4 billion. But only half of the countries made good on their commitments – and the amount that actually arrived was about a quarter of what was promised. Hamas, by the way, was not invited to that conference.

After Protective Edge, a complicated mechanism was established to supervise the entry of materials, including construction materials, into Gaza. Only a limited number of importers were permitted to received construction supplies from Israel, and the importers were required to store the materials in designated warehouses monitored with cameras. Everything that left the warehouses was carefully recorded, and customers could only receive it with the approval of UN inspectors – who checked that the supplies were to be used for repairs.

Palestinian children fill up gallons with water in Gaza City, last week.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

The material – mostly cement and iron – entered the Gaza Strip through a specific Palestinian company under the control of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. All of the lists were given to Israel and were made part of its intelligence database on the Gaza Strip.

But the system of oversight apparently didn’t work well. Not only was a major portion of the war damage from 2014 not repaired. Material that was not permitted into Gaza via Israel got in via Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt – particularly through the Salah al-Din Gate, over which neither the United Nations nor Israel had any oversight. The crossing was even open when the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was closed.

The Salah al-Din Gate has amply served Egypt’s intelligence service, which controls a segment of Egypt’s cement and metal production and has reaped large profits supplying materials to Gaza.

Israel didn’t sound the alarm over the issue, just as it didn’t react to the Egyptian decision in February to open the Rafah crossing without any time limitation. Israel’s diplomatic relations with Cairo and the important security cooperation with Egypt have required that Jerusalem turn a blind eye even when it sees how Egypt’s conduct makes a mockery of the Israeli blockade of the Strip. When all is said and done, it has been and will continue to be Egypt that enforces the cease-fires between Gaza and Israel.

A street in Gaza City's Rimal area that has bombed by an Israeli air strike, last week.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

Not only a diplomatic dilemma

It will be interesting to see what plan the Biden administration comes up with this time around to assist the Gaza Strip. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Israel and Egypt this week, has already begun discussing the arrangements to bring merchandise into Gaza as well as the oversight system for the rehabilitation of the Strip. President Joe Biden made it clear that he intends to have the United States assist in the reconstruction operations and to be involved in bypassing Hamas in the process.

This apparently involves channeling the funds through the Palestinian Authority, which the Israeli army also proposes using as the conduit for the monthly funding from Qatar. The difficulty will arise in the need to supervise the use of construction materials from the moment they arrive in Gaza.

Will they once again be handed over to the major business figures selected by the United Nations? Will Hamas permit Palestinian Authority inspectors to manage the allocation of the materials? And who and how will they decide how these materials reach those who have sustained damage? These are precisely the questions that preoccupied aid groups after the war in 2014 – and the answers at the time didn’t really save Gaza.

Compared to the understandings reached after that war, this time Israel has declared that the cease-fire on its part, which the United States forced on it, was a unilateral step and that it was not obligated to any agreement or arrangement that would be reached with Hamas. But in light of the intensive American involvement, it’s doubtful whether such an Israeli statement will be long-lasting.

It’s important for the United States to begin reconstruction operations as soon as possible to prevent a renewed conflict that could drag it even deeper into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – something the Americans have managed to avoid up to now.

A Gazan family breaking their fast by the sea.Credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM

Israel could very well find itself facing an American stance that gives it two options: Either Israel permits the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in coordination and cooperation with Israel or the United States will find an alternate channel through Egypt. That would not only present a diplomatic dilemma. It would also determine who profits from the sale of building materials to Gaza – Israel or Egypt.

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