“It is our patriotic obligation towards our people that we must reject any involvement by Israeli contracting companies in any development project in the occupied Gaza Strip,” said Osama Kahil, the Gaza-based head of the Palestinian Contractors Union, in response to reports that UNICEF has invited Israeli companies to bid for tenders to build a water desalination unit in Gaza.
Over the past week, the union has been in constant contact with UNICEF, the UN agency for children, as well as the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and local groups in Gaza to oppose the reported invitations to Israeli firms.
The union met with UNICEF representatives in Gaza on Monday, but the meeting did not reach any agreements, Kahil told The Electronic Intifada. He insisted that the tendering process should not include any Israeli companies.
“It has been long agreed between international donors and the Palestinian Authority that any developmental projects should be assumed by local Palestinian companies,” Kahil said. “These funds are allocated for the Palestinian projects and dedicated to the support of the Palestinian people. Therefore, those who have destroyed the Palestinian people’s infrastructure, especially here in Gaza, should not be part of the process. I mean here the Israeli occupation.”
“Israeli occupation should not be rewarded”
Kahil warned that UNICEF’s move could encourage deeper Israeli involvement across the occupied Gaza Strip.
“During previous contacts with the UNICEF’s purchasing officials, we told them outright that we firmly object to them inviting Israeli suppliers,” Kahil said. “We were surprised by their response that they considered Israeli contractors or supplies to be local, something that is untrue.”
In statement issued after the meeting with UNICEF officials on Monday, the PCU objected to UNICEF proceeding with a tendering process involving Israeli firms and warned that PCU members would boycott future UNICEF-funded development projects across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Asked why the PCU insists that Israeli firms should be excluded, Kahil stated “The Israeli occupation should not be rewarded for their aggressive actions against our people in the Gaza Strip.”
Kahil insisted that Palestinian companies are perfectly capable of undertaking any projects, citing the example of a desalination project underway in northern Gaza. “This project is being executed by Masoud and Ali, a local construction company, with the help of a German consultancy,” he said. Kahil added that the $40 million project would provide desalination and treatment of sewage water for irrigation in the areas of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya.
“The priority and policy of UNICEF office in the occupied Palestinian territory is to purchase goods and services from qualified Palestinian manufacturers, authorized dealers and companies,” said Jean Gough, Special Representative of UNICEF in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “We only buy from other providers when goods are not available.”
Gough’s words came in a 28 May statement from UNICEF emailed to The Electronic Intifada, which added: “When purchasing goods or services, UNICEF follows the joint United Nations guidelines and buys goods directly from manufacturers or authorized dealers in a timely, cost effective manner. All purchases are made through a competitive bid process with at least pre-qualified suppliers based in the area of operations.”
In reference to the desalination project, Gough stated, “We are committed to work with our Palestinian partners to ensure that this unit can be built without delay and with the best quality materials available, so that it can benefit Palestinian children as soon as possible.”
“The final decision on the continuation of this project is in the hands of our Palestinian counterparts.” Gough added.
“Important to resolve this problem”
Asked by The Electronic Intifada about the names of any Israeli companies which are involved in the tendering process for the desalination unit, Catherine Weibel, spokesperson for UNICEF in Jerusalem, said that up to this moment, no company has been nominated.
“No contract has been awarded. We are just in the very beginning of the tendering process, which includes invitations to qualified companies. We just know that we have funding for this project,” Weibel said when reached by telephone.
“We hope to implement the project as soon as possible. UNICEF works for the best of children and we want to provide safe drinking water to as many children of Gaza as possible,” Weibel added. “You know that the huge problem of unavailability of such water is pressing, and it is very important to resolve this problem.”
According to local and international bodies, 90 percent of Gaza’s aquifer water is contaminated due to sea and sewage water intrusions. Frequent Israeli army attacks on the coastal region including on its water infrastructure have aggravated the water crisis.
During Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2008-09, large parts of sewage water networks in northern Gaza were partially or completely damaged.
What the resolution will be remains unclear.
“Whatever the amount of funds for the UNICEF desalination project is we insist on rejecting it, if it involves Israeli companies,” the Palestinian Contractors Union’s Osama Kahil said.
“Those who have killed our people and destroyed our infrastructure should not be involved; it is our patriotic position that is irreversible.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.