Thursday,22 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Thursday,22 March, 2018
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Peace, and building materials

A few months ago, donors promised to help rebuild Gaza. But not much has happened since, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed from Gaza

Al-Ahram Weekly

Six months after the guns fell silent, Gazaremains in ruins. Money has been promised, international officials have made plans, and yet the locals are still living in makeshift shelters, waiting for Israel to allow the passage of building materials into the besieged Strip.

Gaza’s pain is now catastrophically familiar, with wars decimating infrastructure and homes, killing thousands and displacing many more. But even the tentative peace that follows seems like an endless struggle for water, food and a roof over the heads of the 1.8 million inhabitants living in this narrow stretch of land, with minimal sea, air or land access to the rest of the world.

Donors meeting in Cairo in October made generous promises, but money alone cannot do much for Gazans, who need a wide range of supplies and building materials to rebuilt their ruined lives.

Diplomats warn that Gaza will become a “powder keg” unless the reconstruction begins in earnest, something that cannot happen until Israel lifts the siege and opens all crossings to traffic.

Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed in the last Israeli offensive, and at the snail pace of current reconstruction, it will take decades to fix what Israel wrecked within seven weeks or so last summer.

Jamal Al-Khodari, a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and chief of the Popular Committee Against the Blockade in Gaza, said that the crossings are Gaza’s lifeline.

“Construction will begin when the crossings are opened for the building material to come through,” he said. “Without open crossings there will be no reconstruction, not even if the money is available.”

Gaza is linked to the outside world by seven crossings, of which Israel controls six. The seventh crossing, Rafah, is controlled by Egypt.

Israel recently said it is has plans to enlarge both the Karam Abu Salem Crossing, which is used by commercial traffic, and the Erez Crossing, which is used by travellers. Al-Khodari is not convinced that this will be enough.

“The occupation is trying to whitewash and institutionalise the blockade and give the world the impression that Israel is not besieging Gaza,” he said. “Israel is a force of occupation. As such, it is obligated by international law to facilitate the traffic of merchandise and individuals to and from the Strip.”

Israel imposed a sea, land, and air blockade on Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. The blockade was tightened further the following year, when Hamas took sole control of Gaza. Although Hamas abandoned official control over Gaza in June 2014, and has been a member of the national unity government since, Israel shows no sign of relaxing the siege.

According to Al-Khodari, Gaza’s entire supply of building materials, including imports received since the end of the war last summer, cannot last more than two weeks if reconstruction efforts proceed according to plan.

Gaza needs 4,000 tons of cement, 1,600 tons of rebar iron, and 16,000 tons of gravel per day, according to Palestinian sources.

“The situation in Gaza is frightful and catastrophic on all humanitarian, economic, health, environmental, educational and social levels because of the blockade,” Al-Khodari said.

“Not one house has been built since the Israeli aggression. One million people still live on charity, on less than one dollar a day. Nearly 80 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line, and 60 per cent are unemployed. About 95 per cent of the water is unfit for drinking.”

Israel launched a full offensive on Gaza starting on 7 July 2014. During the 51-day war that followed, about 2,000 people were killed, 11,000 were injured and massive damage was inflicted on houses and the infrastructure. Nearly 100,000 houses were destroyed. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is still providing shelter to about 15,000 Gaza inhabitants in school buildings.

UN Middle East peace coordinator Robert Serry proposed a plan that would allow a three-member committee from the UN, the Palestinian Authority and Israel to deploy hundreds of international inspectors to monitor reconstruction.

According to Serry’s plan, cameras will be installed in warehouses to guarantee that the stock of building material is used solely for reconstruction, not other purposes. Hamas used building material in the past to build smuggling tunnels into Egypt.

Al-Khodari is not satisfied with Serry’s proposal. “The main thing is to open the crossings fully, for building material to go in. Any plan to regulate the process is unhelpful and can make us run around in circles,” he said.

Foreign dignitaries have been visiting Gaza since last summer’s war to seek ways of alleviating its ordeal. One recent visitor was International Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who arrived on 15 February 2015. During a visit that lasted only a few hours, Blair toured scenes of destruction, visited a shelter and conferred with local politicians, businessmen and aid workers.

Palestinian Labour Minister Mamoun Abu Shahla was among those who talked to Blair. He later said, “We asked for pressure to be brought on Israel to lift the siege and open the crossings.” Abu Shahla also told Blair that the money promised for the rehabilitation of Gaza hasn’t yet arrived.

Meeting in Cairo on 12 October 2014, Arab and non-Arab donors promised $5.4 billion to help the Palestinians, half of which is for Gaza’s reconstruction. None of these promises have materialised, said UN officials.

Back in London, Blair said, “The last conflict left Gaza devastated and its people worn down and impoverished. Twenty years after Oslo, we need a new approach to Gaza and a new approach to peace.”

The Quartet office, which Blair runs, then stated the following in an article: “The problem is not as is often thought locking negotiators in a room long enough to make an agreement. At present, you could lock them in such a room for eternity and peace would still not come. The truth is that if the on-the-ground reality was conducive to peace, negotiators could find a way through the issues of borders and land swaps, and even Jerusalem, refugees and security guarantees.”

Proposing practical steps to break the deadlock, the Quartet office said, “The pre-conditions to a successful peace process are threefold: first, a dramatic and broad improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians; second, a unified Palestinian politics on a basis that explicitly is in favour of peace and two states, meaning a sovereign State of Palestine and a secure, accepted State of Israel; and third, an enhanced role for the region, in alliance with the international community, which must step up to share leadership of the issue.”

Hamas was quick to reject the conditions set by Blair’s Quartet office as “dangerous and unfair.” Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, Hamas politburo member, said that Blair adopted “Israel’s insidious position.” Said Al-Zahhar, “Hamas and the resistance factions cannot abandon their principles to resolve daily crises in the Gaza Strip. We cannot accept Blair’s conditions.”

Meanwhile, the UN warned of a new war in Gaza if the current blockade continues and reconstruction is delayed.

Speaking at a recent news conference in Ramallah, James Rawley, chief of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Palestine, announced plans for a “strategic humanitarian response” in Gaza. According to Rawley, reconstruction efforts in Gaza cannot go forward unless the current blockade is lifted.

Noting that Palestinian factions must vow to stop shelling civilians in Israel, Rawley uncovered a plan to spend $705 million for reconstruction in Palestinian areas, of which 80 per cent is dedicated to Gaza.

According to Rawley, much of the aid promised to Gaza hasn’t been forthcoming. Some of the areas earmarked for regeneration have been cleared of rubble, but construction has been slow. He urged Israel to lift the siege on Gaza and called for the reopening of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt. He also advised the enlargement of the fishing area allowed to the Palestinians to 20 miles.

The OCHA chief said that progress in inter-Palestinian reconciliation could lead to a more effective government and better services for the Palestinian people.

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