Now that the guns are silent, minds turn to reconstruction

To avoid repeating past mistakes, the international community needs to rethink how it coordinates rebuilding efforts in Gaza.

A Palestinian woman puts her hand on her head after returning to her destroyed house following the ceasefire, in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, May 21, 2021 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

The May 20 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, reached after a concerted effort by Egypt, Qatar and the US, provided a much-needed reprieve for the people of Gaza after 11 days of bloodshed and destruction. As Palestinians displaced by Israeli bombardment started returning to their homes and the scale of the damage inflicted on Gaza’s infrastructure became clear, the focus once again shifted to “rebuilding” the enclave, which has been under a land, air and sea blockade since 2007.

On May 18, two days before the ceasefire, the Egyptian presidency had already announced that it would give $500m to finance Gaza’s reconstruction following Israel’s latest round of aggression.

On the face of it, Cairo’s pledge was a much welcome development – the Strip is undoubtedly in desperate need of any humanitarian and reconstruction assistance it can get from the international community. There are, however, reasons to be concerned about Egypt’s offer of help.

First of all, the timing of the Egyptian announcement was jarring, given that it was made while Israel was still bombing civilian targets across the Gaza Strip. Egypt’s promise to fund Gaza’s reconstruction before a ceasefire was agreed helped lift some pressure off the Israeli government, which was facing growing international criticism for its disproportionate use of force and disregard for human life during its bombardment of Gaza. Second, there are suspicions that the true purpose of Egypt’s pledge is not only to help rebuild Gaza but to ensure that  Cairo has significant control over Palestinian affairs and that the Palestinian Authority take over security in Gaza.

At the root of these suspicions is Egypt’s admission that it wants Egyptian firms to take part in the rebuilding process. This signals that Egypt’s reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip will be significantly different than those of Turkey and Qatar, who have been subcontracting Gazan firms to complete rebuilding projects in the Strip since 2009.

Involving local construction and consulting firms in rebuilding efforts is a vital way to provide employment to the many skilled workers in Gaza and stimulate the territory’s beleaguered and battered economy. Egypt, however, seems more interested in providing financial opportunities for its own companies and increasing its influence over Palestine than getting Gaza’s economy back on its feet.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2008-2009 Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, I suggested that the Egyptian city of Rafah, which borders the Gaza Strip, could be utilised as a hub to coordinate reconstruction efforts in Gaza. I was convinced that such a move would boost local economies on both sides and reduce Israel’s control over Gaza. Back then, Egypt was objectively one of the best candidates to aid Gaza’s development. However, much has changed in the last decade.

During Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, 2012-2013, Gaza enjoyed a period of limited prosperity thanks to Cairo’s genuine efforts to support the enclave’s economy and elevate the living conditions of its more than two million residents. After Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed Morsi from office in a bloody coup d’etat, however, Egypt became just another obstacle in front of Gaza’s development. The Sisi regime, in addition to having joined Israel in its blockade of Gaza, flooded and repeatedly bombed the tunnels under the Rafah border crossing which had provided a vital economic lifeline to Gaza’s strangulated economy.

Today, many Palestinians in Gaza see Sisi’s Egypt, not as an ally but as a force that contributes to their suffering. They are also suspicious about the prospects of Egyptian construction firms being operational in Gaza, as they know that if this happens those firms will likely act as a Trojan Horse for Egyptian intelligence and security assets.

The concerns surrounding the Egyptian offer of reconstruction aid signal a need for the international community to rethink how it coordinates rebuilding efforts in Gaza. To prevent a repeat of past mistakes, and enable Palestinians in Gaza to finally take charge of their own development and future, the leaders of the global community need to take five important steps.

First, they need to rethink the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) – a temporary agreement created by the United Nations and agreed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in September 2014. The mechanism is designed to address Israel’s security concerns while allowing the entry of construction materials (aggregate, cement and steel bars only) into the Gaza Strip to be used in construction projects. So far, however, the GRM succeeded neither in enabling major construction in the Strip nor in ensuring Israel’s security. While it allowed Israel to repeatedly block the transfer of basic construction materials into Gaza, it did not prevent Hamas from continuing to arm itself. Ultimately, the GRM has deepened and institutionalised the blockade of the Gaza Strip and hampered attempts at rebuilding over the past seven years. The only solution that can bring about the genuine large-scale reconstruction of the Gaza Strip is a full lifting of the blockade.

Second, global leaders need to acknowledge the need for large-scale funding to enable Gaza’s reconstruction. Rebuilding needs in Gaza are vast – on top of the damage caused by Israel’s bombing in the past two weeks, the Strip still needs to repair most of the damage inflicted on its infrastructure by the wars of 2008/2009, 2012, and 2014. Consequently, a one-off donation of $500m from a single country – in this case, Egypt – is insufficient to catalyse genuine reconstruction. What Gaza needs is a concerted international effort that mobilises funds from various donors capable of providing a sustained and genuine commitment to long-term recovery. Yet, coordinating a large scale funding drive for Gaza is becoming increasingly difficult due to donor fatigue – the latest violence undoubtedly tested the resolve of donors who recently funded reconstruction projects in Gaza only to see them damaged or destroyed. Thus, the international community needs to not only increase its efforts to raise funds but also provide confidence to donors that they are not funding a never-ending cycle of destruction and reconstruction. Realistically, this cycle can only be broken by the lifting of the blockade.

Third, the leaders of the international community need to understand that Gaza’s reconstruction can only be truly successful if it is led by the Palestinians themselves. Reconstruction in the Gaza Strip both before and after the signing of the GRM has been an externally-driven process that denies meaningful local ownership to Gaza’s population. Neither Gaza’s civil society nor Hamas representatives were consulted during the GRM’s development, resulting in an agreement that has little consideration of local needs. Gazan NGOs felt totally excluded from the reconstruction process to this day, with many feeling that Israel’s alleged security concerns were used to sideline even the organisations that have no links to Hamas. The latest round of Israeli bombing, for example, resulted in the destruction of the offices and facilities of numerous civil society organisations. The bombs damaged the offices of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, as well as at least 50 schools and media offices. Without the input of the organisations and institutions affected by the violence, any reconstruction efforts would fail to provide for the needs of the local population.

Fourth, the international community needs to acknowledge the need for a coordinated regional response that involves the donors and agencies best equipped with the resources and experience to operate in the highly challenging context of the Gaza Strip. Any such regional plan should be led by Qatar and Turkey, two regional powers who have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to aiding Gaza’s development since Israel and Egypt imposed an illegal and immoral siege on the strip in 2007.

However, there are some very concerning signs regarding the future role of these states in Gaza’s reconstruction.

During its 11-day bombing campaign, alongside many other civilian targets, Israel also attacked the offices of the Qatar Red Crescent Society and the Qatar-based international media network, Al Jazeera.

These attacks were seen by many as a symbolic message to Qatar to cease its activities in the Strip.

Over the past decade, Qatar has provided more than $1bn in aid to Gaza. It helped rebuild homes, highways, hospitals, schools and other public and private buildings that were damaged by Israeli bombing over the years. It also funded the Sheikh Hamad Hospital for Rehabilitation and Artificial Limbs in Gaza – the only prostheses and rehabilitation centre in a territory that is home to hundreds of disabled victims of Israeli military aggression. Since 2018, Qatar has also been providing direct monthly cash grants to thousands of families in Gaza and paying the salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants. All of this would not have been possible without the agreement of Israel, which makes the recent attacks on Qatari organisations in Gaza all the more concerning. This apparent change of stance is likely tied to Al Jazeera Arabic giving a platform to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to communicate with a wide regional audience and decry Israeli war crimes during the latest round of violence.

The international community should take note of Israel’s attacks against Qatari organisations in Gaza and discourage any consequent efforts by Israel or its regional allies to oust the Gulf emirate from the Strip.

Finally, the leaders of the international community should start taking their collective responsibility to protect Palestinians and their stated commitment to conflict prevention seriously. Each destructive round of conflict brings about death and destruction and diminishes the likelihood of reaching a peaceful settlement. Prevention is also much less costly than reconstruction. It is high time that the international community speaks with one voice in pressuring Israel to prevent the deliberate and systematic provocation of Palestinians through settler violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

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