Politics hamper Gaza reconstruction

Hopes of rebuilding ravaged Strip dashed by the Israeli siege and political disunity.

Gazan families are living in tents near the rubble of their destroyed homes [GALLO/GETTY]

When Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza ended in January 2009, Palestinians emerged to find that much of their infrastructure, including homes, schools, ministries, water and sanitation networks, energy and telecommunications grids,  roads, bridges, and hospitals, had been reduced to rubble.

An estimated 4,100 homes were completely destroyed and over 20,000 shelters were damaged.

in depth

According to UNRWA, the UN relief agency, more than 1,000 Palestinian families are still living in temporary tents.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates the value of damage immediately after the war to be $1.1bn.

The Palestinian Ministry of Planning says that $502mn is needed for immediate and essential infrastructure repairs, while the cost of removing the rubble and damaged buildings will cost upward of $600mn.

At the Sharm El Sheikh conference on reconstruction in March, international donors pledged almost $4.5bn in aid, chiefly to rebuild Gaza.

The control over these funds immediately sparked disputes between Hamas and Fatah, the two rival political parties in Gaza and the West bank respectively, over control of the reconstruction process.

The disputes have delayed delivery of the funds which are also subject to Israeli scrutiny and taxation. Although the amount of money already pledged to rebuilding Gaza is fairly generous, it may decrease due to a lack of follow-up pressure and a redirection of donor interests and attention.

Fatah-Hamas divide

Gazans have used tunnels to smuggle basic items from Egypt [GALLO/GETTY]

In the wake of Hamas’ election win in 2006, both Israel and Egypt, who favour a Fatah administration, closed their borders. This led to a substantial loss in the flow of international assistance and aid, further deteriorating the living conditions in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has always sought control of all financial aid to Gaza in a bid to pressure Hamas to make political concessions demanded by Israel and the US.

Although Hamas maintained its hold on Gaza without compromising its political position, civil services weakened and unemployment and poverty soared.

The prospects for political unity remain far-fetched at the moment and Palestinians have little confidence in their leaders whom they accuse of putting party politics ahead of the urgent need to rehabilitate Gaza.

International organisations willing to assist in the reconstruction process have also felt discouraged from contributing funds and manpower.

International NGOs currently in Gaza have been able to do little more than supervise rubble collection projects from damaged buildings and salvage material that can be reused.  

Heavy machinery needed

This has particularly dampened the spirits of Gazan families still living in temporary shelters facing the cold Mediterranean winter and continuous malnutrition and poverty.

Almost 80 per cent of Gaza families now depend on aid provided by UNRWA and international NGOs.

But the necessity for reconstruction in Gaza did not begin in the wake of Operation Cast Lead – it goes back further to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Israel destroyed its settlements that were built on 60 per cent of the Gaza Strip and left behind tremendous amounts of rubble that derailed Palestinian plans to develop these areas.

Despite the withdrawal, Israel continued small-scale incursions on Palestinian towns and refugee camps, destroying Gaza’s infrastructure piecemeal.

Since 2007, Israel has restricted freedom of movement for people, goods and finances, and prohibited any building material, such as concrete, timber, glass and steel from entering Gaza.

Gaza right now is in urgent need of heavy building machinery such as cranes, forklifts, bulldozers and tractors.

Spare parts and even fuel for the limited and damaged machines that are available in the Strip are also prohibited from reaching the area.

The very limited petrol and diesel available on the market is transferred through an elaborate system of tunnels connecting the Strip to Egypt’s Rafah, or supplied in minimal amounts by Israel. 

This has led to an almost complete halt of construction activities and a severe economic recession.

Solutions in mud

Reconstruction material is prohibited from entering Gaza, so mud bricks are used instead

In early December, UNRWA completed the construction of a number of mud brick homes as part of a project designed to use available natural resources to build 100 houses.

A few local initiatives are also examining similar building methods on a smaller scale.

In addition to these efforts, some cash compensation has been offered to owners of destroyed houses to assist in their living expenses over the past year.

These funds have been used to replace broken windows with scarce and expensive plastic sheeting smuggled through the tunnels.

Despite the hurdles, Gazans insist that they can quickly rebuild once the barriers and curbs are lifted.

Over 45 per cent of Palestinian workers from the Gaza Strip were employed builders and construction workers in Israel. A large number of civil and architectural engineers are unemployed and waiting for the opportunity to begin work.

The Palestinian private sector, as well as academic institutions in Gaza, are well-equipped with the expertise and knowledge to implement reconstruction projects with international partners.  

A number of significant workshops, conferences and labour committees have been organised over the past year in co-operation with expert bodies in neighbouring Arab countries, particularly Jordan and Egypt.

Building material barred

Many Gazans are skilled labourers, architects and engineers [AFP]

Unfortunately, while building mud houses in the highly-populated Gaza Strip may be a temporary quick fix, it is not a particularly workable solution and may even have negative environmental consequences.

With the limited resources available, mud brick homes are most efficient when built on one storey.

To house families, more horizontal surface area is required raising the prospect of encroaching on vital agricultural land, which forms the backbone of Gaza’s economy.

What Gaza urgently needs is a comprehensive plan with long-term vision. Sustainable development is a key element in rebuilding Gaza and a reconstruction strategy should not only focus on providing basic shelters but also create economic opportunities and improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people. 

Once access to material is unfettered and promised assistance funds are delivered, Gazans must not shun, but work closely with the strong coalition of international supporters who have rallied to the Palestinian cause in the past year.

It then becomes the moral responsibility of Fatah and Hamas to set aside their differences and quickly address the dire needs of the people of Gaza.

Basel Almisshal is an architect and expert in post-war reconstruction and development. He is currently a regional director for the International Agency for Economic Development. He has completed his PhD research in post-war recovery studies at the University of York, UK.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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