Gaza: Waiting for the cement

17 Oct

20141018_map504 Palestinians have little faith that Gaza will be rebuilt anytime soon

The Economist report, Gaza City, 16 October 2014

EVERY day merchants troop to the second floor of a Palestinian government office in Gaza City to scour the board that lists what goods Israel has approved—and rejected—for import into Gaza. A Palestinian official says the number of refusals has soared, despite the need to rebuild Gaza after the 50-day war between Hamas and Israel this summer. Similarly glum expressions meet the foreign dignitaries who trudge through Gaza’s rubble promising vast sums of aid, including $5.4 billion pledged at a conference in Cairo on October 12th. Much of the money comes from rehashed earlier pledges—“$2 billion might be a more accurate figure,” says a Western official. And the belligerents, Israel and Hamas, have yet to agree a final settlement.

Heavily populated by refugees, and always poorer than the other portion of occupied Palestine in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip has suffered grievously through the two decades of turmoil, closure and war that followed the 1993 Oslo peace accords. In the latest war, swathes of Gaza were destroyed by Israeli bombardment and some 100,000 people were rendered homeless.

To speed up reconstruction, donors are trying to find ways to sidestep the many political obstacles. The UN has agreed to monitor imported cement by carrying out spot checks in Gaza, responding to Israeli fears that Hamas could nab it to build more cross-border tunnels through which to attack Israel. The first shipment entered on October 14th and soon donkeys were hauling carts piled high with cement bags. These might enable some people to plug holes in their houses caused by artillery shells. But those whose homes were entirely demolished will have to wait longer. Egypt’s leader, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who hosted the conference, is refusing to open his country’s border with Gaza to allow in construction materials, even those approved before the war. At the current rate, says Jan Egeland, a former Norwegian foreign official who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid agency, it will take half a century to meet the housing shortage left by the most recent war, the backlog from previous conflicts and soaring population growth.

Yet Western diplomats going between Israel and Gaza see hopeful signs. Where Israel’s generals once spoke of beating Gaza into submission, they now say a sustainable economy is key to stability. Israel has allowed a trickle of Palestinians from Gaza to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, site of growing tensions over the control of holy places, for the first time in almost a decade.

The Palestinian Authority, the governing body in the West Bank, is commissioning four buses to ferry 200 Palestinians aged over 60 to Jerusalem for Friday prayers at a cost of 65 shekels ($18) for each passenger. Israeli officers say they are considering permitting 5,000 workers from Gaza to enter Israel for the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from the enclave in 2005, when about 100,000 Gazans were allowed to cross the border daily. Farmers on the kibbutzim abutting Gaza wonder when they can replace Thai migrant workers with Palestinians from over the wall. “We have more in common,” says one.

Hamas is being more sensible, too. The Hamas government, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, and the incoming PA, are making progress in integrating their bureaucracies, particularly in health and education. Hamas once looked to Egypt to relieve Gaza’s burden. But given that Egypt’s military government is now hostile to Islamists, they have started to echo PA officials in looking to deal with Israel. “Egypt is harder than Israel,” says a Hamas man, who wonders whether direct negotiations with the Jewish state would make more progress. Rather than trade the remains of dead Israeli soldiers held by Hamas fighters for the release of Hamas prisoners, he says, the movement is considering asking for an easing of Gaza’s situation as a whole.

Yet for all the glimmers of hope, little has been done to tackle the deeper sources of conflict. Deconstructing Hamas’ security force and integrating it into a joint one—a process that Egypt is supposed to oversee—has barely begun. Hamas’s proposed handover of Gaza’s crossings to PA officials has been delayed, in part because the Hamas men running them want guarantees that they will be integrated into the new force and paid. Nor is it clear whether the PA has the manpower or expertise to prevent the slide back into the internal chaos that Gaza suffered from until Hamas forcibly ejected the PA from the area seven years ago. Similarly, some reckon Mr Netanyahu’s professed interest in rebuilding Gaza will wane once foreign attention shifts elsewhere. A senior Israeli politician recently warned that donor investments “will go down the drain” as soon as a rocket is fired. Nobody is willing to bet that will not happen again.

%d bloggers like this: