Gaza donors: Will they get it right this time?

The donor conference aimed at rebuilding the decimated Gaza Strip must avoid the pitfalls of previou

We must focus on learning the lessons from Operation Cast Lead, writes Laurance [Getty]

We’ve been here before. On October 12, the international community came together in Cairo and pledged $5.4bn towards the reconstruction of Gaza, over $1bn more than was requested including $1bn given by Qatar alone. The need has never been greater. Gaza was becoming “unliveable” before the unprecedented destruction and displacement of Israel’s bombardment – today the situation is utterly dire.

It was estimated that $4bn is needed to repair the damage from the latest violence. Back in 2009, a similar amount, $4.4bn, was pledged following Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”. It was never delivered. Most of the projects to rebuild homes and hospitals and schools, the water and sewage systems, and the power station, all of them desperately needed, never took place; not because the donors’ broke their promises – but because the materials necessary for rebuilding were not allowed into Gaza.

Now that the donor conference has happened with all the pomp and ceremony that characterise such events, we must focus on learning the lessons from Cast Lead. It is not enough to pledge large sums. There must be cast iron assurances from Israel that the goods will be allowed in. There must be assurances also that exports will be allowed out and that Gaza’s shattered economy will be enabled to recover. 

Efforts thwarted

I was working with the UN at the time of Cast Lead, as head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) office for West Bank and Gaza. I was closely involved in the emergency response and the subsequent efforts over the following five years to support a recovery. It never happened.

All our efforts were thwarted by Israel’s Kafkaesque obstruction and bureaucracy. They tied us up in knots negotiating how many trucks would be allowed in, when crossings would be open or closed, what information was needed for goods to be cleared, how many permits they would issue for UN drivers, and so on and so forth. Hopes were sometimes raised of a breakthrough, especially after the Mavi Marmara incident and the escalation of the conflict in November 2012, only for our expectations to be disappointed.

Donors pledge $5.5bn for Gaza reconstruction

Could things be different this time round? The details of the “Serry Plan” were leaked last week. The plan, which puts the UN and the Palestinian Authority at the heart of things, should lead to significant amounts of aid and rebuilding materials being allowed into Gaza.

The UN estimates that Gaza needs 89,000 housing units, a figure that includes the 18,000 units that were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable during Operation Protective Edge and the pre-crisis deficit of 71,000.

At the current rate of entry for construction materials, it would take 18 years to import the materials needed for that reconstruction. If, however, the plan works, it will be a major step towards ending the blockade  and starting to rebuild Gaza’s decimated infrastructure.

Winter approaches

There are urgent health challenges facing Gaza too. The 62 hospitals and clinics that were damaged or destroyed in the recent conflict must be rebuilt. The state of equipment in Gaza’s hospitals is deplorable; it must be replaced – and proper systems put in place for maintenance and repair. Thousands were seriously wounded and there needs to be free movement of medics, medicines and equipment into Gaza. Investment in resources are needed to provide community-based rehabilitation. As winter approaches, decent shelters must be provided for tens of thousands of people who are still displaced.

We should be clear about the costs of failure. Without the restoration and expansion of the water, electricity, sewerage processing facilities, health and educational services, life in Gaza will not be tenable by 2020. Gaza being unliveable may even happen sooner than that with concerns that the water supply can only be sustained until 2016. I was in Gaza with a medical mission during a brief ceasefire in the war. There was desperation for things to change, to offer hope of a better future. There was talk of emigration and now we’ve even seen the tragic appearance of Palestinian “boat people” for the first time.

The rebuilding of Gaza must be undertaken as part of a larger plan for Palestinian statehood in both the West Bank and Gaza. European foreign ministers have been clear that the return to the status quo in Gaza “is not an option”.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Boerge Brende said following the conference that it was a “very important signal of solidarity to the Palestinian people”. Gaza remains today a potent symbol of international failure to mediate the conflicts of our time. The pledges made on October 12 represent yet another chance to “get it right”. If we don’t, then we must prepare ourselves for renewed conflict in the near future. 

Tony Laurance is the Chief Executive of Medical Aid for Palestinians and former Head of the WHO in Palestine.