This past August, Ahmed Amir, 34, stood atop the wreckage of a residential building in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun.
In the scorching sun, he smashed giant blocks of rubble with his hammer, breaking them into smaller pieces and loading them onto the back of a truck.
Amir works for a construction company that recycles the debris and rubble left behind by Israeli attacks on Gaza – a business that shows no sign of letting up.
Israel’s three-day attack at the beginning of August 2022 killed at least 49 Palestinians and destroyed or damaged 2,000 homes throughout Gaza, including the building that Amir was scavenging on behalf of his employers.
“I’m conflicted between being glad that I got a job and upset that it came at the cost of other people losing their houses,” Amir said.
Amir had been unemployed for more than five years before getting this job in May 2021, shortly after another Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip destroyed over 2,200 homes.
Before, Amir said, “I hardly ever got work and had to borrow money from my relatives to support my family at subsistence level.”
Now, he works 12 hours a day for $15. The company he works for, he said, employs its workers on a short-term contract basis and doesn’t provide them with health insurance even though the job itself is quite dangerous.
There is the ever-present risk of structural collapse since the buildings have not been completely leveled. At the least, falling debris can land workers in the hospital with a broken leg or arm.
Amir believes the whole business is a cruel trick of fate. It does not seem just that one of the few sources of employment for residents of Gaza, with its 44 percent rate of unemployment, is among its ruins.
Israel’s ban on construction supplies
According to Naji Sarhan of Gaza’s public works and housing ministry, Gaza’s rubble-scavenging business dates back to the time of Operation Cast Lead. Taking place in late 2008 and early 2009, Cast Lead began a series of major Israeli attacks.
During it, Israel destroyed or damaged over 11,000 housing units.
Amid this destruction, the Gaza authorities devised a plan to reuse debris from destroyed buildings, said Sarhan.
This reuse was essential since Israel has banned imports of so-called dual-use materials, which includes many building supplies, as part of its 15-year blockade on Gaza. And despite the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism – an arrangement overseen by the Israeli government that is supposedly intended to facilitate reconstruction – reconstruction has been proceeding slowly.
All the debris that Amir collects will be transported to a crusher and then reconstituted into concrete blocks for reconstruction efforts or new building projects.
Meanwhile, workers like Muhammad Medukh, 25, scavenge for another valuable building component: iron.
Medukh lost his job at a garment factory in 2012 and has worked in the rubble salvage business since the summer of 2014, when Israel launched yet another major attack on Gaza. Despite sustaining multiple work injuries from falling debris, such as leg and arm fractures, he could not afford to take time off.
“I had no alternative but to accept this position,” he said. “Anything is better than nothing.”
Necessity is the mother of invention
Debris is also turning into a profitable business for some.
Muhammad Abu Jabba, 48, who runs numerous construction ventures, quickly adapted to the new economic environment and shifted his business focus to recycled rubble.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said, stating that with so many Israeli restrictions on construction supplies, there were severe shortages of cement and iron.
As a result, in recent years, his cement block factory had decreased production by around 70 percent due to the Israeli blockade. With the recycling of debris, his factory’s production has seen an increase in production by 30 percent following the most recent assaults in 2021 and 2022.
Abu Jabba said that Israel tries to “hinder the recycling process because they don’t want our factories to operate and the city to be rebuilt.”
He said Israel had even added stone crushers to the list of banned import items, but that his company “made local crushers out of used equipment and created roughly 20 tons of [concrete] per day.”
In addition to providing employment opportunities, recycled building materials are also cheaper. Abu Jabba said that a locally produced cinder block costs $22 compared to $31 for an imported block.
Even with cheaper materials on offer, many Gaza neighborhoods have still not been rebuilt. Only 40 percent of the completely demolished residential units from Operation Cast Lead have been rebuilt, according to Sarhan.
What is the real cost of recycled materials?
The cost of rebuilding Gaza is not cheap. A 2021 study by the World Bank, European Union and United Nations estimated that Gaza’s immediate housing reconstruction needs totaled up to $160 million.
While that study downplays Israel’s direct role in the destruction, it also estimates that total reconstruction (before the 2022 Israeli attacks) would cost $345-485 million.
Sarhan estimates that reconstructing buildings and infrastructure damaged by Israeli attacks in 2021 and 2022 will cost at least $500 million – but who knows what it will cost after another Israeli attack.
“Israel frequently attacks [Gaza City],” he said. “Then, [after one attack], they launch another attack on the city after it has been restored. But this time, [in August 2022], Israel attacked the city before we had repaired half of the structures that had been devastated in the aggression of 2021.”
Each time Israel attacks Gaza, the reconstruction efforts begin anew. That’s why contractor Samir Saad said the demand for recycled material keeps going up in Gaza.
“Since we began recycling, many residents have chosen to utilize recycled building materials to rebuild their structures since they are half as expensive as imported ones,” Saad said.
“I understand it is only a short-term improvement because the city won’t see real growth unless building materials are freely and regularly allowed to enter the city,” he added.
Even then, he said, Gaza’s true rebuilding needs were far from covered.
Israa Sulaiman is a writer with We Are Not Numbers.
Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.