“From 1975 to 2007, our business had been quite sustainable and profitable. Since 2007, the business has been badly affected by the Israeli blockade,” said Ahmad al-Breim, a building supplies trader in Gaza, as he waited for his first shipment of raw materials from Israel in more than six years on Monday.
Last week, Israeli occupation authorities decided to allow an additional fifty truckloads of raw construction materials including cement, steel and concrete into Gaza, but in quantities that fall far short of the territory’s needs. Israel previously allowed in just twenty truckloads daily for the private sector.
“We have relied on underground tunnels from Egypt, but prices and availability of goods have been fluctuating,” al-Breim told The Electronic Intifada.
Since early July, when Egypt’s military regime began a renewed assault on the underground tunnels, the price of one ton of cement spiked at $280, al-Breim said.
By 21 September, only about ten of three hundred tunnels were still operating, according to a report this week from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (“The humanitarian impact of reduced access between Gaza and Egypt,” 23 September 2013 [PDF]).
This meant that less than 100 tons of supplies were coming in per day, compared with 7,500 tons daily before the Egyptian campaign.
Prices for the goods coming in on the seventy daily truckloads from Israel will be determined by the local authorities in Gaza. A ton of cement, for instance, will sell to local clients for about $155, while a ton of steel will sell for $900, al-Breim explained.
Al-Breim recalled that prior to the Israeli siege, he used to have hundreds of tons of raw building materials in permanent stock and that his business never stopped.
During the past five years of blockade and unreliable supplies through the tunnels, he said that “whatever we received ran out.”
While the increased shipments from Israel provide some relief, supply is still far short of the need and the chronic shortages affect both public and private projects in Gaza, which is home to almost 1.7 million Palestinians.
With the severe shortage of building supplies in Gaza, for example, construction has stopped on 13 government schools and tendering postponed on 26 others, the UN agency OCHA reported.
Rehabilitation of the 76 kindergartens that were damaged during Israel’s November 2012 attacks on Gaza was also likely to be delayed or postponed, and the construction of a new building at Al-Aqsa University has stopped, OCHA added.
“Seventy truckloads per day is about 25 to 30 percent of the Gaza Strip’s actual needs,” Nabil Abu Muailek, head of the Palestinian Contractors Union in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada.
Since 2010, Israel has also allowed limited supplies into Gaza for construction projects by international agencies such as UNRWA, the UN agency which runs schools and health clinics for Palestinian refugees.
“Prior to the siege, more than 250 truckloads of raw building materials used to enter Gaza daily, via a number of Israeli commercial crossings on the border. Now only the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing in the south is operating, and irregularly,” Abu Muailek added.
Abu Muailek estimated that just half of Gaza’s 300 contracting firms had been functioning over the past six years, and hoped for the reopening of other commercial crossings with Israel.
“There are hundreds of construction projects pending in Gaza,” including many badly needed housing projects, he said.
A basic right to live
Allowing some raw building materials into Gaza for the private sector is seen as a good step here.
Nevertheless, many Gaza residents are frustrated that it is not enough.
“We demand the reopening of all border crossings completely and allowing in all essential supplies in a way that would respect the Palestinian people’s basic right to live,” Rani Ehmaid, a university lecturer, told The Electronic Intifada at a coffee shop in Gaza City.
“Raw building materials remain a part of our essential needs.”
“Beautifying” Israel’s image
The crisis in the construction industry is part of a broader economic and social crisis caused by Egypt’s crackdown on the tunnels and other measures since the 3 July military coup.
These include tight restrictions on the number of Palestinians allowed in and out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing.
Egyptian authorities have accused Hamas, which rules the interior of Gaza, of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood party of ousted Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi — accusations that have not been supported by evidence.
Haidar Eid, an independent political analyst and well-known university professor in Gaza, downplayed Israel’s easing of the restrictions on construction supplies.
“Israel’s image worldwide has been damaged, especially because of the blockade and because of Israel’s war crimes against Gaza in recent years, including the 2009 war and the [November] 2012 attack,” Eid told The Electronic Intifada.
“Therefore, Israel wants to beautify that image — and Israel is trying to send a false message to the international community that Gaza is not living under a siege.”
Eid pointed out that Israel had made a fanfare of letting in such luxuries as Swiss chocolate, “but this is not what Gaza needs. Gaza needs medicines and other important supplies.”
Underscoring his point, OCHA reported this month that 30 percent of essential medicines and 51 percent of medical disposables are at zero stock in the Gaza Ministry of Health’s central drug store.
Re-open the crossings
“The only solution for Gaza is reopening the six border crossings,” Eid added, charging that Israel — the occupying power under international law — has “made Gaza the largest open-air prison in the world.”
In addition to Israel’s collective punishment of the population, Egypt was now punishing Palestinians in Gaza because the new regime in Cairo is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is, ideologically-speaking, a “twin,” Eid said.
The contractors union head Abu Muailek said that the desperate shortage in building supplies had led to the creation of a new industry in Gaza since the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion: breaking up rubble to recycle it for reuse in construction.
“But now it is the end of the road for such alternatives,” Abu Muailek said.
For Gaza, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.