Until this summer, not a single one of the homes totally destroyed during Israel’s assault on Gaza last year had been rebuilt.
The 51-day assault last summer destroyed or rendered uninhabitable 19,000 homes. More than 100,000 were damaged and more than 100,000 people in Gaza remain without permanent shelter.
A major reason for the fact that reconstruction is only just beginning is that between last August’s ceasefire and the end of July this year, Israel has allowed into Gaza just 6.5 percent of the construction supplies needed to repair years of destruction and accumulated housing needs.
But the story is more complex than that.
A basic fact is that Israel still tightly regulates what comes in and out of Gaza, home to 1.8 million Palestinians.
Starting in June 2007, Israel has totally banned or severely restricted the entry of construction materials to Gaza. Since that time, Israel waged three devastating wars on the territory – in 2008-2009, 2012, and the most destructive yet, last summer.
The ban is implemented under the pretext that construction materials are “dual use” – they can be used for military purposes, such as building tunnels, as well as for civilian need.
Palestinian resistance fighters used such tunnels only to attack “legitimate military targets,” according to the recently published independent inquiry commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council into the last Gaza war.
Israel, the occupying power in Gaza, however, does not recognize any Palestinian right to resistance or self-defense.
The Israeli ban and Egypt’s closure of underground supply tunnels under its frontier with Gaza led to an almost total collapse of Gaza’s construction sector and helped push unemployment from an already staggering 28 percent in mid-2013 to 42 percent today.
Gisha says it “continues to object to the definition of a basic civilian commodity such as construction materials as ‘dual use,’ thus paving the way for blanket bans, especially when considering the fact that the ban has not proven effective in preventing tunnel building.”
After last summer’s Israeli assault, Gisha notes, “Israel’s security establishment announced Israel would now allow construction materials to enter Gaza for the private sector for the purpose of reconstruction.”
With Israeli and Palestinian Authority complicity, the UN put in place the so-called Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM).
As The Electronic Intifada revealed in October 2014, this complicated system of surveillance and Israeli pre-approval would give the occupation authorities “even more intrusive control over the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, who will be subjected to onerous ongoing monitoring as they try to rebuild their houses, communities and lives following Israel’s summer massacre.”
Palestinians denounced the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism as a means to give international cover and legitimacy to Israel’s siege.
“It is inevitable that a complicated mechanism such as the GRM will slow down reconstruction efforts and increase costs,” Gisha now states. “The question is what purpose it serves, if any.”
Red Lines, black market
Gisha is the group that uncovered the Israeli defense ministry’s notorious “Red Lines” document which established mathematical formulas for how many calories every man, woman and child in Gaza would be permitted to consume to keep them just at the level of survival.
Gisha compares the Israeli-controlled rationing of building supplies to the “Red Lines” formulas, albeit with a “security rationale.”
“It is meant to prevent construction materials from being used for building tunnels,” Gisha states, “but it turns out that the controlled shortage created by the formula is one of the causes for the emergence of a black market for construction materials, as the army itself admits.”
The fact is that people whose houses have been destroyed often face multiple severe needs, especially given the generally catastrophic economic situation in Gaza.
As a result, many will sell the limited materials they are allocated under the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.
For those who want to build, the process is difficult and expensive. Gisha’s report provides a taste:
A contractor whose building project in Gaza was approved by Israel told Gisha that he had to provide Israel with the location of the building, the building owner’s ID card, the building plans and the amount of construction materials required. The contractor said it took four months for the project to be approved, and he decided to invest elsewhere in the meantime. Another contractor told Gisha that each of the elements involved in the project requires Israeli approval. “The process is very complicated,” he said, “You need warehouses and supervision. These days everything is restricted and not all the companies received Israel’s approval to work. If a project like this used to take me three or four months, now it would take about seven months, and so I have to keep workers on for longer and spend more money than I would have before on a similar project.”
Another contractor told Gisha about the risks involved even for a determined builder: “To build I’d need to hire people and sign contracts with workers and with other companies. It’s not worth my while because I can’t be sure my project is going to get approved, and until it does, I lose money because I have to pay the workers I signed on.”
Even if his project is approved, the contractor said, shortages of cement could then produce further delays and costs.
More hurdle than help
Gisha notes that projects run by Qatar and major international agencies are the only ones that are currently proceeding at any scale because they have the “resources to navigate the bureaucratic process.”
But for the private sector and individuals “who don’t have the resources to navigate the bureaucracy and absorb its extra costs and delays, the [Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism] seems more hurdle than help.”
Gisha acknowledges the arguments of those who assert that without the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism things would be even worse, as nothing at all would be coming in.
The argument goes that the mechanism “sought to achieve a balance between the urgent, vital need for reconstruction in Gaza and the drive to prevent construction materials from reaching hostile entities there.”
But Gisha’s conclusion is rather more sober: “What it mostly achieved was to prove, once again, to what extent Israel exercises control over civilian life in Gaza, while largely disavowing responsibility – this combination harming a beleaguered population.”
“A year later, the paradigm has to shift and restrictions on the entrance of construction materials, which serve no one, must be removed,” the group concludes.