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Gaza in ruins: why money, cement, and leadership are scarce

More than half a year after a devastating conflict in Gaza, large sections of the Palestinian territory show little sign of a rebuilding effort, leaving tensions to build toward another war.

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    All around Gaza there are recycling businesses, which collect rubble, triage it, and resell. This guy has such a great business going he's increased from 3 workers before the war to 11 now.
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Standing atop the rooftops of Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, one would hardly know that more than half a year has passed since last summer’s war.

Whole blocks still lie flattened, a chaotic landscape of concrete chunks and twisted iron rods. Bright clotheslines hang along the pockmarked walls of homes that look unlivable. Even in the areas that have been cleared, the bulldozed plots look like missing teeth amid the densely packed urban grid, with no signs of rebuilding.

That bodes ill for this coastal territory of 1.8 million Palestinians, where more than 2,000 people were killed in the third war between Israel and Hamas in recent years. Half the population’s homes were damaged or destroyed, and many here warn that frustration over the slow pace of reconstruction could prompt a fresh conflict with Israel.

“The people here are pressurized … so they’re going to explode,” says engineer Naji Yusuf Sarhan, deputy minister of Public Works and Housing. “They’re not going to explode against Egypt, they’re not going to explode against the government here, they’re going to explode against Israel.”

Everywhere in Gaza City one can hear the clip-clop of donkeys, pulling creaky carts laden with rubble to ad-hoc recycling centers. There, men with weathered hands hammer the twisted iron back into straight rods and grind the rubble into gravel to be used for building blocks.

In short, Gaza reconstruction is moving at about 5 miles an hour. And all across the territory, you hear one refrain: We don’t have the cement to rebuild.

Not unlike during Gaza’s last interwar rebuilding phase, cement has become the most precious commodity at the center of the political struggle over the territory’s future. But this time Gaza is wholly dependent on Israel for cement, since Egypt has shut down the smuggling tunnels that long provided an alternative source of supplies.

Wary of Hamas

Both Israel and the international community remain wary of opening the floodgates for building supplies; Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, used hundreds of thousands of tons of cement to build underground tunnels and bunkers leading up to last summer’s war.

“Everyone is punishing Gaza because they are expecting 1 percent of the cement to be used in the tunnels,” says Mr. Sarhan, the deputy minister.

As of six months after the August cease-fire, Israel had allowed 54,252 tons of cement into the territory. According to the Ministry of Public Works and Housing in Gaza, that’s less than 4 percent of the 1.5 million tons of cement needed for reconstruction. At this rate, it will take more than 10 years to repair and rebuild all the affected homes.

This month, outgoing UN envoy Robert Serry proposed to Hamas that all Palestinian factions agree to a 3- to 5-year cease-fire to allow for reconstruction. In addition, numerous reports have surfaced of backchannel negotiations between Israeli security officials and Hamas leaders about the conditions for such a deal. Hamas reportedly is seeking a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades on Gaza, including permission to build a seaport and an airport.

While some Hamas leaders publicly disputed such reports, Taher Nounou, a Hamas spokesman close to former prime minister Ismail Haniya, said on March 19 that the movement is “studying proposals submitted by international parties related to the truce with the Israeli occupation.” He said Hamas would respond after reaching a common stance with other Palestinian factions.

In a conflict far more devastating than the 2008-09 Cast Lead operation or the brief 2012 campaign, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups last summer launched more than 4,500 rockets into Israel, unleashing an unprecedented barrage on the Tel Aviv area. Israel launched its deadliest ground invasion since the 2006 Lebanon war in a bid to deter Hamas and destroy the nearly three dozen attack tunnels it had built leading into Israel.

When the fighting ended after 51 days, about 2,200 Palestinians were killed, according to local and United Nations estimates – 50 percent more than in the 2008-09 war. The UN placed the proportion of civilians killed at 70 percent. Israel’s army disputes this and says at least 890 of those killed were militants, or about 40 percent of the UN death toll. Israel lost 66 soldiers – nearly seven times more than in Cast Lead – and seven civilians.

The politics of delaying reconstruction

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has technically resumed responsibility for the Gaza Strip. But internal power struggles have left Hamas in control of many aspects of governance, to the dismay of international donors who conditioned their donations on the Palestinian government establishing “effective control” of the territory. In October, donors pledged $5.4 billion, half of which was earmarked for reconstruction, but only a few hundred million dollars have materialized so far.

“I always tell people that the war started after Aug. 28,” says a development worker.

Many in Gaza accuse the PA of stalling reconstruction in order to pressure Hamas into making further concessions. While Hamas reconciled with the Fatah-dominated PA in June, formally ending seven years of split rule, it has yet to relinquish control of Gaza security.

In what some see as a retaliatory measure, the PA is refusing to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees in Gaza, even those who are on the front lines of reconstruction efforts. And very few ministers from the Palestinian unity government have visited the strip since they were appointed nine months ago.

“In my opinion, [President Mahmoud Abbas] is using political extortion against Hamas by saying there will be no rebuilding and no reconstruction in Gaza until the Palestinian unity government is fully in control of the Gaza Strip,” says Mkhaimer Abusada, political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza City.

Nevertheless, he says it’s not too late for President Abbas to give his blessing to the idea of a long-term truce, which could then be reached through the PA rather than between Hamas and Israel directly. “But whether [the PA] can be part of it or not, we feel that something is happening and there might be a deal soon,” he adds.

Bustling black-market for cement

Barring any negotiated end to the blockade, distribution of cement is limited to 19 warehouses approved under a United Nations-brokered arrangement that provides careful oversight over Israeli-imported cement.

On a recent afternoon, 650 tons of cement sits stacked on pallets in the Shemaly Company warehouse in Shejaiya, with a UN monitor present to make sure it only goes to customers approved by Israel. When one such man comes in to pick up his allotted bags, however, he is turned away.

No deliveries are allowed today, says owner Hatem Shemaly, who adds he was previously blocked from distributing cement for 50 days.

Why?

“That’s the problem, I’m really confused,” he says, unsure whether it’s Israel or the Palestinian authorities who are blocking him.

If the customer is desperate, he can go to a smaller warehouse nearby dealing in black-market cement. These bags also were imported according to the UN arrangement, or “mechanism” as it's referred to here, but then sold by homeowners who need cash for rent or food. Now anyone willing to pay three to four times the normal price can circumvent UN oversight – including Hamas.

There are 20 black-market warehouses in Shejaiya alone, says dealer Abu Muhammed, and they operate openly.

“The authorities know the reality – people are in bad need,” he says, as a man negotiates the price for his five bags with an employee. They settle on 70 shekels ($17.50) for a bag that usually costs in the vicinity of 20 shekels ($5).

Most Palestinians blame Israel for the lack of cement, since it controls the sole commercial border crossing into Gaza. It has restricted the flow of goods and people since Hamas – which it deems a terrorist organization – seized power in 2007. But Israel says it has fully cooperated with the UN on supplying building materials.

“Israel has an interest to promote the reconstruction, and it’s very important to us,” says a spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli civil administration responsible for implementing Gaza policies. “There is no delay on our side.”

A key reason reconstruction is so much slower this time is Egypt’s 2013 crackdown on illegal smuggling tunnels along the border, which previously had facilitated the entry of 3,000 tons of cement per day, whereas Israel has allowed in an average of only 166 tons per day since shipments began in October.

‘There is no government’

Driving through southeastern Gaza near the Israeli border, a pile of broken asphalt forces an abrupt stop. The rusty hulk of a building teeters over the intersection. Above it all, a banner with a Palestinian fighter, gun pointed in the air, proclaims Ahlan wa Sahlan – Welcome to Khuzaa.

This border town of about 10,000, invaded by Israeli tanks twice in five years, was one of the worst-hit areas last summer. According to the mayor, 80 percent of the roads were destroyed; 1,200 homes and all three schools were hit; and of the nine mosques, five were destroyed and three stand damaged, still bearing the pockmarks of bullets and shrapnel.

At the municipality building, employees have worked most of the winter with cold air blowing through the shattered windows, only recently repaired. They have no working telephones, fax, or Internet. When a Monitor reporter arrives, the lights are out; only about 30 percent of the electricity lines have been repaired, and black-outs are frequent – as they are across Gaza.

Rubble removal is finally scheduled to begin this month after delays due to lack of funding.

“The international organizations are doing their best, but they’re very slow,” says Shehda Mohammed Abu Rock, the mayor of Khuzaa. “I’m in a hurry.”

An engineer with 20 years’ experience in Kuwait, he’s overseen the restoration of one of the town’s two water tanks as well as some electricity lines. But he needs more cash. So he’s planning a fundraising trip to Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Brunei.

“And Obama as well, if possible,” he says over glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice. “I feel like I’m the president of 15,000…. We have no government in Gaza.”

Among those Gaza government employees currently not being paid is engineer Jawad Alagha at the Ministry of Housing.

But he works long days and even weekends out of a sense of duty. According to him, the war damaged or destroyed some 137,000 homes. He says 70,000 names have been submitted to Israel as eligible to purchase cement along with UN assessments specifying the amount needed.

Donors slow to make good on pledges

Israel says it has allowed 55,000 residents to acquire cement as of March 3, roughly corresponding with Palestinian figures. The status of the rest remains unclear, and Mr. Alagha says even those approved are sometimes allotted far less cement than recommended by the UN, though COGAT denies this.

“We are currently investigating why there are big gaps,” says Frode Mauring, special representative of the UN Development Programme.

But he says that their No. 1 challenge is funding, with only about 10 percent of the $5.4 billion pledged having come through so far. Even UN agencies are competing with each other for aid.

“Ultimately we’re all competing for funds, because there are other conflicts in the world … drawing on the same pool of money,” he says.

It’s also hard to convince donors to pitch in when previous projects lie unfinished.

Engineer Wael al-Arabeed, a Gaza City contractor, won a bid to build a new Qatari-funded housing development in December 2013, but work stopped after the war due to lack of supplies.

“Donors ask – can you guarantee that the materials will be there? And we say, we cannot,” says Alagha of the housing ministry.

Now with the dimming of a postwar euphoria that saw increased support for Hamas, many openly say that the only solution is for Hamas to step down.

Hazem Balousha contributed from Gaza City.

 
 
 

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