In the whole period since Israel’s lethal and devastating summer 2014 attack on Gaza, the United Nations has provided assistance to just one family to rebuild its totally destroyed home.
“I held the new keys in my hand; at that moment, I felt relieved and happy, and I wanted to give the keys to my wife and show her the house and everything in it,” Atef al-Zaza said as he took possession of the home he will share with his spouse Fatima and their 12 children in eastern Gaza City, last October.
It replaces the home the al-Zaza family lost in July 2014, during Israel’s bombardment.
Pierre Krähenbühl, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, confirmed the stunning fact earlier this month that this remains the only totally destroyed house the UN has helped to rebuild.
He also revealed that as of 18 November, his agency’s engineers had confirmed that 9,117 homes in Gaza were totally demolished, a similar number suffered severe or major damage and another 123,000 suffered minor damage.
In July, the UN children’s agency UNICEF published this video highlighting the situation of some of the thousands of Gaza children still living in rubble:
UNRWA has given money to about half the households needing minor repairs and to just over 1,000 families for repair of severe or major damage.
But why are none of the totally destroyed homes being rebuilt?
Palestinian groups say a key reason is UN complicity in the so-called Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.
End the secrecy
Last week, 28 Palestinian civil society organizations wrote to Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, to express concern over the glacial pace of reconstruction.
They are urging the UN to end the secrecy around the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.
“Since its creation in September 2014, the agreement has not been publicized and Palestinians have been left without details or timelines, which in fact conflicts with the principles of transparency and accountability as well as fundamental human rights and humanitarian principles,” the letter, a copy of which was sent to The Electronic Intifada, states.
The Palestinian groups – which include Ma’an Development Center, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, Badil and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees – also launched an online petition to press the UN to break the logjam. It has almost 1,000 signatures.
As The Electronic Intifada revealed in October 2014, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism involves a complicated system of surveillance and Israeli pre-approval that gives the occupation authorities even more intrusive control over the devastated lives of Palestinians in Gaza.
As part of the system, both the UN and the Palestinian Authority collect detailed information on Palestinian families that is then passed on to Israel.
“So rather than ease and eventually end the siege, the [Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism] entrenches and institutionalizes the blockade and perpetuates the status quo by reinforcing Israel’s control over the Gaza Strip,” the 28 groups say in their letter.
In August, the Israeli group Gisha, which monitors Israel’s siege of Gaza, published a report illustrating the ways the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism and its onerous procedures, combined with Israel’s ongoing siege, prevents reconstruction.
Due to the devastation to Gaza’s economy, those lucky enough to obtain building supplies such as cement through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism often sell them on the black market merely to make ends meet.
One major obstacle is that Israel bans or severely restricts so-called “dual use” construction materials which Israel says can be used for military purposes, such as building tunnels, as well as for civilian needs.
But another level of international neglect and complicity is also responsible for the fact that so much of Gaza remains in ruins.
UNRWA head Krähenbühl also revealed that more than 47,000 refugee families have received permission to repair their homes through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.
But none has received a single dollar “due to lack of sufficient funding.” Another 7,200 families who have received permission to rebuild totally destroyed homes are in the same boat.
Last month, The Electronic Intifada profiled one family, that of Ahmad al-Hamayda, his six siblings and their elderly parents, who are in this situation.
In October 2014, international donors pledged $5.4 billion dollars to rebuild Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah announced it would siphon off about half that money for its own use.
But a year later, only a third of the funds pledged for Gaza had actually been paid.
UNRWA says that just $247 million has been pledged for its emergency shelter program, leaving a shortfall of almost half a billion dollars.
Hold Israel accountable
In his most recent briefing to the UN Security Council on 19 November, UN special representative Mladenov only briefly mentioned Gaza.
The Bulgarian diplomat did try to put a positive gloss on the utter failure of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, including lauding unspecified bureaucratic changes.
He welcomed Israel’s removal of aggregate – gravel and sand used in construction – from the list of dual-use items.
But what Israel gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.
“The good news, however, has been tempered by the addition of other items, including timber, to the list this year,” Mladenov admitted.
Officially, Israel doesn’t allow in wood planks more than a centimeter thick. But according to Gisha, it all but bars any import of wood into Gaza. “These additions hinder Gaza’s reconstruction, and I call on the Israeli authorities to reconsider their decisions,” Mladenov said.
But there’s absolutely no reason to expect such mild-mannered pleas to change Israel’s behavior.
That’s why the 28 groups that wrote to Mladenov last week want a totally different approach.
“We call upon the UN to rethink its strategy from one of working around the blockade to one which holds Israel accountable for the crisis in Gaza and pressures it to immediately and completely lift the blockade,” they say.
Their first demand is for the UN to publish the secret agreement with Israel governing the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.
After all, if the system is as effective and benign as UN bureacrats claim, what do they have to hide?