Rebuilding under siege: How Israel's blockade hinders the reconstruction of Gaza
Two weeks into a ceasefire that halted recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, there are serious concerns that the reconstruction process in Gaza will do little to meet the humanitarian needs of the population amid Israel’s ongoing blockade.
Last Sunday, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah for talks over the Cairo-brokered 21 May ceasefire agreement and the reconstruction of Gaza following the 11-day war that left swathes of the coastal territory in ruins.
The next day, Kamel also held talks with Hamas officials led by Yahya Sinwar in Gaza. “We discussed several files, most importantly the necessity to oblige the occupation to stop its aggression on Gaza, Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah and all over Palestine,” one Hamas official, Khalil al-Haya, said after the meeting.
"With the current situation, it will take decades - not years - to rebuild"
He also urged the full lifting of the siege Israel imposed on Gaza when Hamas took power from rival Palestinian factions in 2007 following its victory in elections a year earlier.
“The human cost civilians paid during those 11 days and the damage to infrastructure are huge,” Suhair Zakkout, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman in Gaza, told The New Arab.
“Even at an early recovery stage, Gaza is hardly moving on”.
In a statement given two days after the truce, Lynn Hastings, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Gaza said: “One message I heard repeatedly is that people in Gaza are traumatised more than ever; girls, boys, women and men. The intensity of the strikes was without pause; too many homes lost and loved ones gone”.
She added that the escalation has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, generated by almost 14 years of blockade, internal political divisions, and recurrent hostilities.
The cost of war
As of 27 May, 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and 40 women, were killed and close to 2,000 injured during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, according to figures provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
At the peak of the escalation, 113,000 people were forced to flee their homes to find shelter and protection at UNRWA schools and hosting communities. About 8,500 internally displaced Gazans remain with host families.
Local authorities said at least 2,000 housing units were completely destroyed and 15,000 other units sustained some degree of damage.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that 58 education facilities, nine hospitals, 19 primary healthcare centres, including Gaza’s only coronavirus test laboratory, and multiple water and sanitation facilities were partly damaged since the hostilities broke out on 10 May.
Schools remain closed, affecting nearly 600,000 children whose education had already been repeatedly interrupted due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The UN said around 800,000 people in Gaza have no regular access to clean water as about half of the water network was damaged in the bombings, with sewage systems also destroyed. The heavy damage to infrastructure has also compounded electricity shortages, resulting in daily power cuts of 18-20 hours.
Preliminary figures estimate the damage at hundreds of millions of dollars.
The politics of reconstruction
Last Thursday, the UN launched an emergency appeal for $95 million to address immediate and early recovery needs and repairs to key facilities for the next three months. It has released $22.5 million in assistance to bring essential relief and to restore people’s access to basic services like healthcare and water.
Several countries have made financial pledges to support reconstruction efforts in Gaza including Egypt and Qatar - each promising $500 million in aid - the EU, the US, Germany and the UK.
"Israel doesn't make things easy in post-war reconstruction. We saw how restrictive the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism was after the 2014 offensive"
As Gazans wait for the aid needed to rebuild the strip, it is unclear whether or not a new international mechanism will replace the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), an agreement between the PA, Israel, and the UN that has governed the reconstruction process since Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014.
Under the GRM, Tel Aviv exerts tight control over the entry of goods, with the materials and building plans also requiring hard-to-get approval from Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which inspects all supplies serving both a civilian and military purpose, known as “dual-use materials”.
This system gives Israel complete power to reject, or considerably delay, construction projects or essential items since they are inevitably constrained by the dual-use list, justified on the basis of security.
The result for Gaza is a severely hampered rebuilding process, with conditions in which this mechanism functions making it impossible to overcome the restrictions of the blockade.
Construction materials only enter Gaza through the Karam Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) crossing, one of two passageways controlled by Israel, which is partially open for some of the aid to go through. The Israeli-administered Erez crossing remains closed for most Palestinians in Gaza aside from urgent medical referrals.
The Rafah border crossing, which is controlled by neighbouring Egypt, opened last week allowing for limited relief cargo. Supplies from Egypt, Kuwait and other countries are being sent through this border crossing.
OCHA called upon Israel to open all the key crossings for the entrance of essential and humanitarian supplies.
Despite promises to rebuild the Gaza Strip after the 2014 war, much of the reconstruction is still incomplete. According to Gaza's housing ministry, 2,000 housing units destroyed in previous conflicts have yet to be rebuilt.
Three years after the last Israeli offensive, Oxfam warned in a report that the GRM was failing to meet the needs of Palestinians in Gaza amid an escalating water and sanitation crisis. The paper concluded that “its complexity and the formalisation of Israeli control over humanitarian access become a tool for entrenching Israel’s systematic violation of these obligations.”
“What was an imperfect, supposedly temporary measure has become entrenched within the bureaucracy of the 10-year blockade, funded and backed by the international community and providing an appearance of legitimacy to Israel’s ongoing control over the Gaza Strip,” Oxfam Country Director Chris Eijkemans stated in 2017.
Talking to The New Arab, senior Hamas member Ghazi Hamad pointed to three big hindrances to the reconstruction process; Israel’s policy toward Gaza, namely the blockade, the hard restrictions placed on incoming raw materials, and the fulfilment of financial aid committed by donors to support the rebuilding.
“Israel doesn’t make things easy in post-war reconstruction. We saw how restrictive the GRM was after the 2014 offensive,” he said.“I don’t expect the process will be smooth under these conditions”.
Ghazi also reacted to Israel’s emphasis on ensuring that funds donated for the appeal are not diverted to Hamas, saying it is not the party’s intention to benefit from the donations.
"It's not just about rebuilding infrastructure, the high concern is also rebuilding the fractured lives of Gazans"
“We want the reconstruction phase to proceed in a transparent way. All we’re interested in is to see what’s been destroyed and damaged rebuilt, and the money going to people in need,” the Hamas official stated.
The Biden administration has said it would liaise with the Ramallah-based PA, along with the UN, Egypt, and Gulf countries, to channel aid to Gaza while ensuring that Hamas does not benefit from the US funds pledged for reconstruction.
Egypt has given guarantees that rebuilding aid will not go to Hamas, and will be possibly coordinated through an international committee led by Egypt or the United Nations that would supervise the spending.
“How do we stop or influence who will reconstruct Gaza and how is it going to be done! That’s an upcoming mission to us all. How to make sure it helps us and serves our interest and is transparent,” tweeted Najla Shawa, a Palestinian humanitarian worker in Gaza.
Zakkout underscored how critical it is to ease entry restrictions for materials needed for rebuilding the enclave’s wrecked infrastructure.
“Gaza has gone through four times of destruction and reconstruction, each cycle of violence has brought everything down. It has never fully recovered,” she said. “With the current situation, it will take decades - not years - to rebuild”.
Although basic repairs to water, sewage and electricity networks are ongoing, damage to infrastructure and utilities is still affecting the provision of essential services. Power is down to four to five hours a day, causing major disruptions to the water supply, there is scarce availability of fuel, drugs, and medical equipment, and hospitals are operating with only a few hours of electricity.
Exhausted medical staff who work in an already overstretched health system are treating the large influx of those wounded during the hostilities in addition to Covid-19 patients.
“It’s not just about rebuilding infrastructure, the high concern is also rebuilding the fractured lives of Gazans,” the ICRC spokesperson said, stressing that many people who had been either physically or psychologically affected by Israel’s prior military operations were still receiving treatment before the latest Israeli assault.
Many residents feel hopeless, expecting more violence in the future, and are incapable of reassuring their children that another war won’t happen again.
“People cannot live in this cycle for generations and generations,” Zakkout said.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec