Gaza reconstruction held hostage to politics

One of Emad al-Khaldi’s pilot projects to provide Palestinians in Gaza with shelter. (Emad al-Khaldi)

Controversy has arisen between the Hamas-led government and the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) during the past few weeks over stalled reconstruction in the war-torn Gaza Strip.

The Gaza government is criticizing UNRWA for not putting more pressure on Israel to allow raw materials through Gaza’s commercial crossings — a condition that the government of Libya imposed on the aid it pledged to UNRWA for the construction of homes destroyed during Israel’s three weeks of bombing of the Gaza Strip in winter 2008-09.

The 22-day assault left more than 3,500 Palestinian families displaced and badly in need of shelter.

In March 2009, international donors including the UN, Arab countries, the EU and the US pledged four billion dollars in aid for reconstructing Gaza, yet the promised funds have not materialized as the international community still demands that the elected Hamas party in Gaza recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept agreements signed by the PLO (of which Hamas is not a member) with Israel before the Islamist party wins international recognition. As it is an agency of the UN, which is a party to the boycott of Hamas, the ability of UNRWA to carry out its mandate is affected at the expense of the Palestinians in Gaza seeking its assistance.

“We are wondering what’s going on regarding UNRWA’s real involvement in the reconstruction process,” Yousef al-Mansi, minister of public works with the Hamas-led government in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada. “Recently, we have embarked on a new housing project for both residents registered as refugees in the Gaza Strip and those who are known as citizens or non-refugees. UNRWA should be genuinely involved in the reconstruction process.”

The ruling Hamas party in Gaza claims that UNRWA has received tens of millions of dollars in funding, granted by some Arab countries like Libya, earmarked for building housing for thousands of Gaza residents whose homes were destroyed.

UNRWA can carry out any reconstruction process in Gaza, at least for those who are registered refugees. Instead of taking care of rebuilding the destroyed houses, or helping to bring in raw building materials to Gaza, given UNRWA’s great responsibility towards the occupied Palestinian territories, it is unacceptable that UNRWA, which is supposed to take a big responsibility for refugees, remains handcuffed,” the minister said.

UNRWA must use its mandate to pressure the Israeli government through third parties, in order for Israel to allow entry of building materials,” he added.

Since the summer of last year, Israel began allowing some previously banned goods into Gaza. However, urgently needed building materials are still not allowed in.

UNRWA has not taken the initiative and it has committed itself to what the Israeli occupation authorities have dictated regarding the borders with Gaza. As to the best of our knowledge, UNRWA has signed a number of building contracts with some countries, including Arab states. For example, we are aware that UNRWA has received millions of dollars in aid from the Libyan government. UNRWA claims that they have received $2 million but the amount we know is $50 million,” al-Mansi asserted.

Al-Mansi warned of a possible uprising by the people whose houses were destroyed during Israel’s assault on Gaza two years ago, unless reconstruction takes place soon.

“Nowadays, the region sees growing mass protests [by people] in rejection of bad socio-economic conditions in their countries. Therefore, the tens of thousands of Gazans who have lost their houses could eventually rise up. We in the government, despite the Israeli blockade and the lack of real support to us, have attempted to help those people over the past two years. I believe that these affected people could burst either against UNRWA or the Rafah crossing terminal or against the Israel-Gaza border line,” al-Mansi warned.

The ministry says it has cooperated with some Arab nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have offices in Gaza in rebuilding hundreds of houses of those affected by the war. More recently, the ministry has launched a housing project that is aimed at building a thousand houses in different areas of Gaza. The Electronic Intifada has previously reported on a similar project undertaken by the ministry and NGOs.

In the past four years of Israeli siege, Palestinians in Gaza have relied mainly on underground smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border to bring in essential goods that the blockade has made scarce, including cement, steel and other needed reconstruction materials.

UNRWA focused on rebuilding schools

Within its mandate and capacity under the Israeli blockade, UNRWA has carried out a number of housing projects across the Gaza Strip.

“We are currently focused on building seven UNRWA-run schools out of 100 that we have asked the Israeli side to allow construction materials in for, as they have only allowed materials for seven schools,” UNRWA spokesperson Adnan Abu Hasna told The Electronic Intifada. “We have already completed 150 housing units in Gaza. But in general, the reconstruction process is very difficult to carry out under current conditions. We need hundreds of thousands of tons of cement and steel in order to carry on the reconstruction,” Abu Hasna added.

There were 640 government and UNRWA-run schools in Gaza before the Israeli offensive. During the attack 18 schools were destroyed, including 8 kindergartens, and 280 were damaged, according to a December 2009 report by 16 international aid and human rights agencies, including Oxfam and Amnesty International (“Failing gaza: no rebuilding, no recovery, no more excuses a report one year after Operation Cast lead.”)

Asked if UNRWA had received funds needed for reconstruction that has yet to be undertaken, Abu Hasna replied “We know that the people here in Gaza have great expectations from UNRWA. UNRWA has a humanitarian mandate, not a political mission; this is our mandate. Regarding the Libyan grant, we have received only $2 million and the Libyans insist that the houses should be built with materials from commercial Israeli crossings.”

Abu Hasna maintains that UNRWA does not have a political mandate enabling it to pressure Israel, but last February UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza and called for Israel to allow materials through the crossings.

As to whether UNRWA has responded to local initiatives to reconstruct destroyed houses using materials like mud or sand, Abu Hasna said, “We have already responded and we have already built some sixty mud houses in the northern parts of Gaza. However, any temporary solution like this cannot replace a genuine reconstruction process which means opening the border crossings and allowing raw materials to flow into the Gaza Strip.”

Gaza residents waiting for shelter

Some enterprising Gaza residents aren’t waiting for government and institutions like UNRWA to act and are taking matters into their own hands.

“A couple of years ago, I attempted personally to look into some other options to build, using some raw materials other than regular ones, like cement. I examined soil in different parts of Gaza until I picked a sample of workable soil. My idea focused on compressing sand,” engineer Emad al-Khaldi explained.

Al-Khaldi added that the process worked and he designed a machine to compress the material which he used to make bricks.

“In the beginning, I built one house using 15,000 [bricks] and it took me two months to build it. Some international organizations like the International Labor Organization were attracted to my idea. We signed a contract with UNRWA to build three houses out of sand bricks as a pilot project.”

However, al-Khaldi says he faced difficulties completing his project in cooperation with UNRWA. “They have not enabled me to proceed with the project broadly by assigning enough contractors to carry out the work. They have also changed the design and they began using raw materials transported through underground tunnels [from Egypt],” al-Khaldi asserts.

Whether it is sand, mud, straw, cement or any other material — or whether these materials are being transported through underground tunnels or via Israeli commercial crossings — what most concerns displaced residents renting apartments, staying in relatives’ homes or even in tents, is to have their houses reconstructed once and for all.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.