Gaza Aid Groups Recycle Border Wall Rubble for Water and Housing Projects

Red Cross infrastructure project uses cement to create concrete-lined canal, for lack of raw materials.

When Palestinian militants knocked down a Gaza border wall, engineer Ashraf al-Sadoun saw an opportunity - the rubble could be recycled to complete a Red Cross infrastructure project, a rainwater runoff ditch.

Raw materials are in short supply because of the continued blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, hurting ordinary Gazans but also international aid organizations. Israel must approve each shipment into Gaza, and aid workers say that's a painstakingly slow process.

As a result, the United Nations and other development agencies have frozen several large projects, like a new waste water treatment plant for Gaza City and a housing project for thousands of Palestinians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to make do by scouring Gaza for materials it can use. It's a survival technique perfected by ordinary Gazans, who use vegetable oil for car fuel when gasoline is in tight supply and ancient kerosene stoves when natural gas runs out. Gazans dig tunnels into Egypt to haul in everything from chocolate to computers.

Red Cross officials presented one of the results of their recycling this week: a concrete-lined canal through flood-prone date groves in central Gaza . The runoff ditch will help save crops and prevent farmers from getting stranded in seasonal floods, said resident Shihdeh Abu Mishal, 71.

The concrete slabs, collected from southern Gaza dunes, were left there after Hamas militants knocked down the border wall with Egypt in January to protest Cairo's refusal to open its border crossing.

"I thought - I can use those blocks, instead of them being rubbish," said al-Sadoun, an engineer who works for the Red Cross.

By using the slabs, Red Cross officials only had to ask Israel for 30 tons of cement, instead of 180 tons they originally required, said Red Cross official Antoine Grand.

It took six months for Israel to approve the 30-ton shipment, Grand said.

In rare, blunt criticism from the Swiss-based organization, Grand said the Red Cross would not have begun the project if it would have had to ask Israel for the entire amount of concrete. "It takes too long, and there's no guarantee we would get it," Grand said.

Israel has allowed about 20,000 tons of cement into Gaza since the blockade began in June 2007, after Hamas violently seized power of Gaza.

The territory needs around 3,000 tons a day, said U.N. official Hamada Bayari.

Israeli officials say they have to scrutinize raw material shipments because they could be used by Palestinian militants to make weapons. Militants fire locally made crude rockets at Israel, and cement can be used to line tunnels that smuggle weapons into Gaza and fortify military positions.

Israel also frequently closes its border with Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket fire, delaying shipments. Most recently, Israel sealed off Gaza, starting Nov. 5, to force Gaza militants to halt rocket fire.

"It's illogical to expect that in a combat situation, crossings would function normally," said government spokesman Mark Regev. "We want to see the situation return to normal."

This year, the Red Cross crushed up several bombed-out Gaza houses - destroyed by Israeli strikes in years of violence - for gravel to harden dusty roads that flood in rains.

In August, they began building a $3 million dollar waste treatment plant in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, using more abandoned border concrete. Workers have already laid down dozens of slabs to line waste pits. The project should end in February and will serve 250,000 residents. The project will filter water in native reed beds and replenish Gaza's parched aquifers.

By comparison, a similar project in northern Gaza, using materials shipped from Israel, took around 18 months to build. Israeli delays and Palestinian militants firing rockets from the area staggered the project, despite lobbying by international Mideast envoy Tony Blair.

Red Cross engineers say all they need from Israel is a few tons of cement to complete a pumping station to filter solid objects from the waste.

The United Nations halted $150 million dollars of work this year after Israel began its blockade, because it could not ship in raw materials, including a housing project for 32,000 residents, said Bayari, the U.N. official.

"The Red Cross is doing innovative work, but we are looking at large scale projects. The UN can't find locally sourced materials for that, Bayari said.