Gaza blockade over? Not according to the UN.

The UN's top representative in Gaza says building projects are being delayed because Israel is not allowing the free flow of construction materials into the territory.

Adel Hana/AP
A Palestinian woman walks next to bamboo furniture, displayed outside a family bamboo workshop, in Gaza City, Thursday, Dec. 9.

More than two months after Israel approved the entry of construction materials for humanitarian projects in Gaza as part of the loosening of its blockade of the coastal enclave, only a tiny fraction of the needed materials have arrived.

Projects to build schools, health clinics, housing units, and water distribution sit idle as the UN agencies administering them wait for cement, steel, and other construction materials, highlighting the lack of reconstruction progress in Gaza despite Israel’s promise in June to allow such projects to go forward.

Illustrating just how far behind Gaza is, the projects in limbo are ones that were suspended in 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza. They don’t even begin to address new needs that have arisen since then from population growth, infrastructure deterioration, and the destruction from Israel’s offensive in the Palestinian territory that ended in January 2009.

“The scale of the need, when measured against the capacity at the current crossing points, just tells you it's still going to be wholly and totally inadequate,” says John Ging, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the main UN agency in Gaza. “The accumulation of many years of underdevelopment here every year becomes worse. We have exhausted all of the arrangements to try to cope.... It’s the ordinary people who are suffering as a consequence.”

A report released last week by 21 international organizations, including Amnesty International and Oxfam, said that little has changed on the ground in Gaza since Israel announced in June that it would ease its blockade of the territory. While Israel said it would allow more construction materials into Gaza under the new policy, the reality has been an increase in food and consumer goods coming into Gaza, but little increase in construction materials.

The start of the blockade

Israel, along with Egypt, imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2007 in the wake of Islamist group Hamas’s takeover of the coastal enclave. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, decided to ease the siege after nine people were killed in Israel’s raid on a flotilla attempting to break the blockade on May 31.

Though the policy change was announced in June, Israel notified UNRWA and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in early October that it had decided to allow construction materials into Gaza for only 7 percent of the projects the UN wanted to resume – nine UNDP projects and 25 UNWRA projects.

Since then, UNRWA has received 562 truckloads of building materials, while it estimates it needs 3,000 more to complete the 25 projects. The UNDP has received no construction materials. The UN estimates that a total of 670,000 truckloads of construction materials are needed to meet Gaza’s needs. According to the report, about 715 truckloads per month have been delivered to Gaza since Israel announced its policy change, which is about 11 percent of pre-blockade levels.

“We have everything set, we’ve got everything ready to go,” says Dania Darwish, spokeswoman for the UNDP in Jerusalem. “We don’t know why we haven’t received any construction materials.”

Israel disagrees

Major Guy Inbar, spokesman for Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT), says delivery of construction materials has been delayed because Israel was waiting for the UN agencies to finish their contracts and tenders for the projects. Between 20 and 50 percent of trucks coming into Gaza carry building materials, and the number of truckloads into Gaza has increased by 92 percent since June, he said.

Ms. Darwish says the UNDP has completed all of its contracts, the projects are fully funded, and contractors are standing by to begin construction as soon as the materials arrive.

Israel tightly controls the imports of building materials into Gaza because it fears they could be used by militants to build fortifications or attack Israel. It has required the UN to monitor all of the building supplies entering Gaza to ensure they do not fall into the hands of Hamas or militants. That has contributed to the sluggish pace of entry.

But Mr. Ging says militants can easily get their hands on building supplies in Gaza because of the smuggling tunnels on the border with Egypt. Hundreds of tons of cement are smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels every month. If the UN were willing to use smuggled goods, it could easily complete its projects, he says.

“Those who are saying it might fall into the wrong hands know perfectly well that cement is coming into Gaza through the tunnels,” he says. “It just flies in the face of all logic and it also flies in the face of all honesty in the way this is being dealt with. We are being prevented from building schools ... on the basis of a dishonest argument that is undermined by the fact that cement is coming in through the tunnels.”

Inbar says the tunnels don’t negate Israel’s need to make sure the legally imported supplies don’t fall into the hands of Hamas. “I can't control the tunnels,” he says, adding that the cement brought through them is of much lower quality than legally imported cement. “That doesn't mean that I have to cooperate with them, and help them to get more. It's not our obligation to help Hamas get this stuff.”

UNRWA says that 40,000 Gazan children have been turned away from its schools because it does not have the room for them. Its classrooms already operate on double shifts because of the crowding. UNWRA has not been able to build a new school in four years in Gaza, where 80 percent of the population depends on aid and unemployment is 40 percent.

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