Israeli limits stymie Gaza rebuilding

Without a shift in the Israeli policy that doesn’t allow building materials into Gaza, much of the $2.8 billion that Palestinians hope to raise at a donors’ conference Monday will be limited to humanitarians needs.

Hatem Moussa/AP
Recovery: Gazans worked on a house wrecked in an Israeli strike.
Ilene R. Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor
The home of Mohammed Abed Rabbo was destroyed earlier during the Israel-Hamas war.

Maamon Khozendar, chairman of Khozendar and Sons Company Ltd., is one of Gaza's most successful industrialists. He's a petroleum importer, and executes major construction projects around the Palestinian enclave.

What he'd most like to do now is help his fellow Gazans recover from the devastating 22-day war that came to an uncertain pause in late January. But rebuilding and rehabilitating Gaza requires the basics of the construction industry – cement and steel – that Israel will not allow in through their border crossings.

His dilemma presents a window into a core challenge faced by Palestinians and international donors as they gather in Egypt on Monday to pledge funds for postwar reconstruction.

"I have almost everything I need, except for gray cement and white cement," Mr. Khozendar says. "Without those two elements, you can't produce."

Without a substantial shift in Israel's policy, the $2.8 billion the Palestinian Authority (PA) hopes will be pledged Monday will probably not go beyond humanitarian needs. Until Israel and Hamas reach a negotiated truce, which is being worked on through Egyptian mediation, a whole range of reconstruction projects will remain theoretical.

The 10 Qassam rockets fired at Israel by Gaza militants Saturday underscore the shakiness of the pair of unilateral cease-fires each side declared in January. Following the latest strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised there would be a "painful, uncompromising response." Hours later, another Qassam launched from Gaza exploded off the coast of Ashkelon.

Even though the conference takes place amid much uncertainty over the state of Palestinian politics and the state of war in the coastal strip, Gazans themselves are desperate to begin rebuilding their lives.

2,800 Gaza homes destroyed

According to the most recent figures from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, the conflict destroyed more than 2,800 homes completely, and 1,900 partially, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. In addition to that, many symbols of government were damaged, from the parliament building to ministries to police stations.

None of those figures include losses to private businesses.

Khozendar says that his businesses alone suffered $2 million in direct losses. This includes a petroleum station in northern Gaza that got hit by a missile and a marble factory that was reduced to rubble by bulldozers. He says he doesn't count the 100 dunams of farm land destroyed in the fighting; bulldozers were used extensively by the Israeli army to "clean out" area where Hamas guerrillas were based.

"In my own home, I have plastic and nylon sheets on the windows, because all the glass broke in the bombing, and from where should I get glass?" asks Khozendar.

He says that what does come in is brought through the tunnels from Egypt, a system that financially benefits Hamas, which collects taxes on the goods.

"We need glass for 5,000 houses," says Khozendar. Small quantities exist, but because of the extreme shortages, the prices are prohibitive for most. A meter of glass was 45 shekels a few years ago; now it's 300 to 350 shekels. "The amount needed doesn't exist here, and this is one of the critical points to address if we are to rebuild and rehabilitate," he says.

"We're giving people hammers to break the cement and iron to break up the ruins and reuse it. From the rubbish, we can get maybe 40 percent of our needs. The other 60 percent has to be brought in," he adds.

A delegation of 17 Gazan businessmen, who are slated to attend Monday's conference, plans to announce that the Israeli army destroyed "600-700 factories, small industries, workshops, and business enterprises throughout the Gaza Strip," Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported. Of 255 Gazan plants connected to the construction industry, 63 were hit directly, totaling an estimated $36 million in damages, the paper reported.

Eager to rebuild

When Mohammed Abed Rabbo decided to move his family from Beit Hanoun – the northeastern corner of Gaza – further south to East Jabaliya, he thought it would be safe. Beit Hanoun, an agricultural area, was used by Palestinian militants to launch rockets at Israel.

But during the war, Mr. Abed Rabbo's house was largely – but not totally – destroyed. After sheltering temporarily in a United Nations school during the worst of the fighting, Abed Rabbo and his family came back to the tattered remains of this neighborhood, and saw no choice but to move into the one mostly enclosed room that remained standing amid the wreckage.

Now he wonders how they're going to rebuild. "I was ready to move elsewhere in Gaza to live in better conditions, and now I'd do anything to have my family in a better situation than this," says Abed Rabbo, as his wife cooks an egg and tomato stew in a pan on an open fire on the floor.

Cooking gas is expensive but also pointless – their stove as well as their kitchen were destroyed – electricity for this war-torn neighborhood is long gone. They cook and warm themselves by fires built from scavenged firewood, and have light at night from a small lantern. "I would accept even a caravan," he says, the local term for temporary, prefab unit that is about the size of a trailer home.

"I even tried to rent an apartment somewhere, but the problem is that there isn't one available in the whole of Gaza," he explains, leaning on his cane. He was wounded in a previous Israeli operation in northern Gaza in 2006, when Israel was also after Hamas rocket launchers. That was part of what drove him to move south, away from what he thought was the front line.

"Israel did this, but the Arab countries bear responsibility, too. I blame Hamas also, because they're not meeting the demands of the international community," he says, reflecting on his situation and that of all Palestinians here. "Without a national unity government, nothing will be rebuilt, even if it rains money on Gaza."

'Humanitarian goods only'

Israel says that it will provide unfettered access to Gaza for basic assistance such as food and medical supplies. But goods for heavy industry remain off limits for now.

"The policy is we're facilitating humanitarian goods only, and anything beyond that will have to be discussed between Israel and the international community," says Maj. Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense's committee on Gaza.

He says that during the last cease-fire with Hamas, which ended Dec. 19th, cement, piping, and gravel went into Gaza, and were used to build and reinforce tunnels and bunkers. "This is something we're not happy with obviously, and this is something we're looking to avert in the future, and we've said this to all the international organizations," Major Lerner says.

At the Monday conference, the US is pledging $900 million, said secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrives in the region Sunday on her first trip to the Middle East for the Obama administration.

"The plan, as we will present it, is not only to restore Gaza to its pre-Israeli offensive state, but to rebuild the Palestinian economy as well," said PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Hamas, meanwhile, is submitting a separate reconstruction plan to the conference. The rival Palestinian factions relaunched talks last week in Cairo, but seemed to make little headway. On Saturday, Mr. Abbas said that for Hamas to join a unity government, it must embrace a two-state solution and recognize Israel. Hamas reiterated its refusal to do.

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