The Electronic Intifada 9 February 2015
Tens of thousands of Palestinians are still living without adequate shelter more than five months after the end of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer.
The assault left more than 100,000 homes either fully or partially damaged. Many schools, hospitals and water facilities remain in ruins.
In the context of such ongoing devastation, UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, announced last month that it had run out of aid money for Gaza’s reconstruction process.
“Digging under a rock”
Yet to paint the announcement itself as the crisis — implying that the reconstruction process had been working until now — is misleading, according to many people in Gaza.
Around $5.4 billion in aid to Gaza was pledged in October at an international donor’s conference in Cairo — half of which was immediately earmarked by the Palestinian Authority to itself. According to Robert Turner, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, “virtually none of [the $5.4 billion] has reached Gaza.”
“Right now we have to dig under a rock to find any information about the aid we’re supposed to be getting and where that money actually is,” said Omar Shaban, a founder of the group Aid Watch Palestine.
“We hear over and over again that someone new was just hired for $50,000 or that so many people are committed to helping, but then we see no change,” Shaban told The Electronic Intifada. “It’s as if you were to go into a big kitchen and there were twenty people there trying to cook, and then there was no food.”
Aid Watch Palestine was founded during the summer of 2014. Its founders believe that the international aid system needs to be dramatically restructured.
The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Levy recently spoke to three members of Aid Watch Palestine.
Heba Alhayek is a student of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. Nora Lester Murad and Omar Shaban are analysts of the Palestinian economy, based in Ramallah and Gaza, respectively.
Sarah Levy: What is the goal of Aid Watch Palestine?
Nora Lester Murad: The long-term goal is to improve international aid so that it helps Palestinians to claim rights and to further a just and peaceful solution. Seeing as that’s a big goal, to start we’re focusing first of all on Gaza, and second of all on transparency. Transparency is one big step toward accountability because you can’t have accountability without transparency.
SL: What are you working on now?
Heba Alhayek: In Gaza we hope to hold meetings and workshops with locals to raise their awareness about the issue. We have also begun to train a group of writers who can collect stories from Gaza that can be shared with the rest of the world. These are stories about people who were affected by the last aggression on Gaza, people who are living without houses or shelters.
NLM: Besides this our work mainly consists of beginning to collect and compile research to get a better sense of where the aid has come from starting in October 2012, what it was for, where it has gone, and what were the parties it touched before reaching its destination. But the ultimate goal is to transform or liberate international aid so it actually is helpful.
SL: Can you describe the situation today on the ground in Gaza? How different are things today from how they were when Israel stopped its bombing campaign on 26 August?
HA: First, when you’re talking about the failed reconstruction process in Gaza you have to see it as related to everything else. So you have the siege, and you have the unemployment, and you have salaries that have not been paid, and then you have the failed reconstruction process. It’s all together, there is so much suffering.
Today, after the war this summer, people are still living under trees or amongst the ruins of their destroyed or damaged homes.
Omar Shaban: There has not been a single big project built since this summer. No homes or schools or hospitals. The reconstruction has effectively been nonexistent. Gaza is in need of 1.5 million tons of cement and so far only 27,000 tons have been allowed in.
This cement was only allowed for instances of minor damages, for about 17,000 people. On top of this the people who got this cement were forced to pay with their own money for it, told they would be compensated later. Of course this has not happened.
Today there are still 60,000 people living in school buildings and tens of thousands of people living with neighbors or with relatives. In some houses there are fifty people living there.
Students cannot get to school, parents are not working, and many people cannot even afford food. This is a huge social problem. So in some ways the consequences of the war are more destructive than the war itself. Gaza is on the verge of collapsing.
“Upholding a façade”
SL: Why do you think the reconstruction process has been stalled so far?
NLM: I think there are several factors. Of course the ongoing rift between the Fatah and Hamas governments in Gaza since the unity deal [in April 2014] is a factor because in order to really rebuild Gaza — where we’re not just talking a few houses here and there but entire neighborhoods — it would take government planning, which at this point is not moving forward.
Then there are Israel’s restrictions which are obviously problematic. The blockade and of course the occupation are huge issues that not only affect the reconstruction but everything else in Gaza.
Personally, though, I would put a majority of the responsibility on the international community because by upholding a façade that things are working when they’re not, this is in effect another kind of complicity, to which I think the main antidote is transparency. I think it’s the lack of transparency that directly contributes to people continuing to not get the help that they deserve.
OS: In Gaza, we feel that the UN mechanism has replaced the Israeli siege. The UN has taken the responsibility from the [Palestinian Authority] to help the people of Gaza and now no one is being helped. Meanwhile, the PA is simply hiding behind the UN rather than taking responsibility for its own people. The PA is trying to manage the Gaza crisis from Ramallah, which is no way to get anything done.
And the UN refuses to seriously cooperate with local partners on the ground. The UN serves us without giving us the right to hold them accountable. If you have an authority you have to be responsible. The UN has the authority without the responsibility.
Then you have European countries who do not want to invest again in something that their money rebuilt in 2008, 2009, 2010. They think, why do I need to rebuild something that was rebuilt with my money just a few years ago?
HA: This is why we are looking to the local society. We think that the people who are affected the most must engage in their own development process because they are the only ones who really know what they need.
SL: I’ve heard mention of Israel actually benefitting from the aid money being pledged. Can you explain how or why?
NLM: We know that Israel benefits in many ways.
One is by including Israeli companies on the list of companies whose products are allowed into Gaza [to help with the reconstruction].
Another way they benefit is by ensuring that anything that does make its way into Gaza is considered an import to Israel. So if you’re taking something directly from France to Gaza, it has to be imported to Israel, then taken to Gaza. So that means that the fees and the costs of importing to Israel — customs, taxes, fees at the port, transportation fees — all of that Israel benefits from.
If the materials do finally get to Gaza but aren’t allowed in on that same day they arrive then they have to be stored, which means you have to pay money to Israel to store.
And if it does get in or when it does get in then you have to pay a security fee to have your truck cleared by Israeli security. So there are lots of different ways [that Israel profits from the reconstruction process].
Of course some of the money also goes back to donor countries. Some donor countries are more efficient, you could say, at recycling money back to themselves. This is mostly through consultancies and sometimes through what’s called “tied aid” which is when the recipient is required to purchase from the donor country. The point is that not all of the aid is given with the sole intention of helping the people of Gaza.
The other big problem with the aid donations is that there is no penalty for failing to follow through with a pledge. We should be asking why have the countries that have pledged millions of dollars in aid simply felt that it wasn’t necessary to actually give it.
If the aid and reconstruction process is not accountable to anyone or to any standards of law, ethics or morality, and if it isn’t accountable to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the broader Palestinian community in whose name “aid” is being given, then the violations of Palestinian rights and local priorities will be perpetuated. Aid is essentially subsidizing the continued violations of Palestinian rights.
This is why we think that transparency and accountability have to be the beginning steps in unraveling the current mess that is the international aid system.
Sarah Levy is an independent journalist living in the West Bank. Follow her on Twitter: @levysarahm.
- Gaza reconstruction
- Aid Watch Palestine
- Nora Lester Murad
- Omar Shaban
- Heba Alhayek