Rebuilding Gaza, Yet Again

In 2012, the United Nations issued a dire warning: change the situation, now, or the Gaza Strip may no longer be a livable place by 2020. Unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity were high; access to water and electricity were inconsistent; the entire territory, constructed within artificial borders, was dense and underserved. Nine years later, conditions for Palestinians in the strip have not changed.

Children make up about half of Gaza’s inhabitants, and three quarters of the population consists of refugees, primarily Palestinians forced to flee their homes during the Nakba (catastrophe) that started with the war in 1948. Although Israel has restricted movement to and from Gaza since the early 1990s, the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006, which propelled Hamas to power in the small territory, led to the present situation in which the movement of many goods and people in and out of Gaza has been essentially barred due to a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. Since the United Nations’ 2012 report, Gaza has experienced multiple destructive attacks by Israel, continues to live under blockade, and most recently, had to deal with the devastating outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Billions of dollars have been committed to rebuilding Gaza over the decades, but conditions have only continued to deteriorate. For this and many other reasons, Gaza is most often identified today as a humanitarian disaster: a civilian populace of nearly two million people caught between political forces that care little about the lives of the innocents in the crossfire.

Gaza is most often identified today as a humanitarian disaster: a civilian populace of nearly two million people caught between political forces that care little about the lives of the innocents in the crossfire.

In May 2021, Gaza suffered from Israel’s most recent military assault, with air strikes and tank and artillery attacks that killed 256 Palestinians (including 66 children) and injured nearly 2,000 more. More than 1,000 housing and commercial units were destroyed and another 16,257 were damaged. Almost 60 educational facilities and nearly 30 health facilities were damaged as well. As soon as the air strikes began, and especially once the cease-fire was announced between Israel and Hamas on May 20, the pledges of financial support for reconstruction came from the usual donors. Yet, the many lessons learned from previous assaults indicate that reconstruction efforts would be stunted at best and would do nothing to deal with the root causes of conflict. Indeed, the question now is: what is the future of Gaza’s reconstruction after this most recent assault?

The 2014 Israeli War on Gaza, in Hindsight

Although the last major war on Gaza was in 2014, the coastal enclave has experienced significant direct and structural violence since then, including thousands killed, injured, or traumatized during demonstrations at the Gaza-Israel border during the Great March of Return of 2018-2019. In the assault of 2014, which lasted almost two months, Israel killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, making it the most deadly episode since the blockade on Gaza was imposed in 2007 (167 Palestinians were killed in 2012 and more than 1,300 were killed in 2008-2009). According to the United Nations, more than 17,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged and around 1,500 children were orphaned.

The 2014 war was utterly catastrophic, and the response for aid seemed to match the urgency. At a conference in Cairo months later, donors pledged $3.5 billion to rebuild Gaza over three years. Top pledges came from the United States ($277 million), the European Union ($348 million), Saudi Arabia ($500 million), and Qatar ($1 billion). Overall, donors pledged $5.4 billion (part of which went to support the budget of the Palestinian Authority [PA]). Yet even then, donors were skeptical about the potential for any amount of money to rebuild Gaza without a just and permanent political resolution of the Palestinian question. Donors may have even been reluctant to donate funds to rebuild infrastructure that was likely to be damaged again. At the conference, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry noted, “This is the third time in less than six years that together with the people of Gaza, we have been forced to confront a reconstruction effort.”

While the pledges were generous, the deliverables were meager. Months after the conference, less than 2 percent of the money had been transferred to the Palestinians. The Gulf states, which made the highest pledges, had the biggest shortfalls; by 2018, almost all the unfulfilled pledges were by these Arab states. Thus, much of what was destroyed in 2014—and 2012, and 2008-2009—remained destroyed at the onset of this latest bombing campaign in 2021.

Impediments to Rebuilding Gaza

While lack of funding is a significant barrier, donor shortfalls are certainly not unique to Gaza. It is difficult to find any humanitarian crisis that receives the full financial support needed, or even the full amount of money pledged by donors. Development aid has plateaued in recent years, especially to the most vulnerable populations, while global military expenditure continues to increase. Yet, aside from poverty and lack of financial resources, Gaza faces a host of other challenges that are almost entirely unique to this small territory.

Aside from poverty and lack of financial resources, Gaza faces a host of other challenges that are almost entirely unique to this small territory.

First and foremost is the Israeli blockade, now nearing 15 years. Deemed a clear violation of international humanitarian law more than a decade ago, the blockade has constituted one of the most destructive conditions in Gaza. Aid agencies have long warned that the blockade hampers reconstruction, let alone day-to-day life; by 2016, less than 10 percent of the homes destroyed in 2014 had been rebuilt. Acknowledging this reality, as soon as the most recent cease-fire took hold, the Middle East director of the International Committee of the Red Cross predicted that, “The damage inflicted in less than two weeks will take years, if not decades, to rebuild.”

Israel must approve all construction materials that enter Gaza, including pipes, machinery such as generators (needed due to constant electricity cuts), and even cement. Because of the perception of these resources as “dual use” (defined loosely as any item that could potentially be used for military purposes), Israel scrutinizes all requests and limits the amount of such materials that can be imported. For example, in 2015, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) decided to require special permits for all lumber pieces of a certain size. Many organizations expecting shipments of supposedly acceptable lumber deliveries that had been approved in advance reported still being blocked from receiving them or enduring inspections and other delays. Despite having three entry points into Gaza, Israel only permits construction materials to cross the Karam Abu Salem crossing, which it closes whenever there are tensions or violence.

Alongside the blockade are the multiple layers of administrative and bureaucratic barriers needed for a reconstruction effort. Much of the money to be used in Gaza will be funneled through the PA’s Ministry of Finance in Ramallah, which will work with the United Nations and other agencies within Gaza. Yet COGAT is the Israeli government agency that approves and coordinates exit and entry for Gaza from the Karam Abu Salem (for goods and merchandise) and Erez (for people) crossings, which are run by the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Land Crossings Authority. These crossings have limited hours and capacity, dictated entirely by the Israeli side (crossings are closed on Israeli religious and national holidays, for example). In 2015, the charitable organization Oxfam estimated that rebuilding Gaza would take more than a century unless the blockade was lifted, in large part due to import limitations; the agency projected that more than 800,000 truckloads would be needed to repair the aftermath of the 2014 assault, but less than a quarter of one percent of materials had been permitted by later that year.

The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) put the United Nations at the center of a complex process meant to monitor so-called “dual use” goods imported into Gaza.

Another significant obstacle that has entrenched the blockade is the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) established after the 2014 war. The GRM put the United Nations at the center of a complex process meant to monitor so-called “dual use” goods imported into Gaza. Sold as a temporary measure meant to benefit Palestinians by streamlining the processes needed to import goods through a crippling blockade, as well as grant governing power to the PA, the GRM did neither, nor was it temporary. Not only does Israel still retain the definitive decision-making power over any dictates of the PA, but governing bodies or civil society organizations in Gaza were not represented in GRM negotiations, while the PA, which signed the agreement with Israel and the UN, has little governing presence in Gaza as its reconciliation efforts with Hamas falter. Rather than challenge the blockade or empower Palestinian civil society, the GRM has formalized Israel’s role as the final arbiter of what enters Gaza and when. Israel has case-by-case approval power (and thus, veto power) on all applications and vendors of construction materials, can monitor reconstruction sites with drones, and retains a database of all homeowners in Gaza with property damage, including personal and identifying information. As if these ethical and privacy violations were not enough, an estimated 65 percent of materials were purchased through the GRM via Israeli companies, providing Israel a financial benefit in allowing its own private sector to be paid to rebuild infrastructure that its military had destroyed.

The Assault of May 2021

While the final cost of damage from the May 2021 offensive is still unknown, estimates are in the billions of dollars. Qatar was quick to announce $500 million for reconstruction, while the United States pledged $360 million in total Palestinian aid, with a large chunk reserved for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) reconstruction efforts. The European Union (and separately, Germany and Norway), the United Kingdom, and China also announced their support. Nonetheless, the UN appealed for an emergency $95 million for immediate needs such as the provision of food, health care, basic repairs, and cash assistance.

Interestingly, Egypt has taken a leading role in both negotiating the cease-fire and in assuring donors that their funds would not be funneled to Hamas. In February, Egypt had announced that it would leave the Rafah border crossing open, as an incentive for reconciliation between Palestinian factions. Before the latest cease-fire on May 20, Egypt pledged $500 million for rebuilding efforts in Gaza, primarily through supporting Egyptian companies that will work in the besieged territory. In early June, Egypt sent convoys of approximately 50 bulldozers, cranes, and other construction vehicles to Gaza, prominently displaying the Egyptian flag. These actions garnered strong praise from Hamas, which has historically had strained ties with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. It seems clear that Sisi sees this investment as an opportunity to reposition Egypt as a regional leader and gain credit with western nations that might otherwise criticize Egypt’s human rights abuses.

The United States and its allies are betting on bolstering the PA through aid delivery both to ensure that money stays out of Hamas’s hands and to lend the inept governance authority some badly needed legitimacy.

The United States and its allies are betting on bolstering the PA through aid delivery both to ensure that money stays out of Hamas’s hands and to lend the inept governance authority some badly needed legitimacy, especially after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas canceled the legislative elections in April. The head of Hamas’s political wing, Yahya Sinwar, stated that the group would not take “a single cent intended for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts,” clearly trying to preempt concerns by donor countries and organizations that refuse to work with Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by much of the world. President Joe Biden stated his desire was to “do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority—not Hamas, the Authority.” Yet the disconnect between the West Bank and Gaza Strip geographically, and Hamas and the PA politically, makes this a difficult proposition.

Breaking the Destruction/Reconstruction Cycle

The first and most important recommendation in providing a just reconstruction effort in Gaza is to lift the illegal, destructive, and cruel blockade on the strip. The siege since 2007, and the tacit acceptance by the international community of such an act of collective punishment, is a blight on the human rights record of the 21st century. Aside from the dire consequences for Gaza’s population, it  has become increasingly disingenuous to continue to justify the blockade as a security measure. There is no evidence that it makes anyone safer, and there is overwhelming evidence that it is only successful in making life miserable for millions of people, a large swath of whom—the youth— never voted for Hamas and, in fact, have never had the opportunity to vote.

It has become clear that the blockade is less about Israel’s safety and more about applying pressure in order to topple Hamas, as Israel itself admitted nearly 10 years ago. This is not self-defense but playing politics with the lives of innocents. Human rights organizations from around the world have called on Israel to lift the blockade since it first imposed it on Gaza. No permanent reconstruction of Gaza is possible with such a siege in place; indeed, no serious discussion of Gaza could exclude the fundamental demand of ending the blockade.

No permanent reconstruction of Gaza is possible with such a siege in place; indeed, no serious discussion of Gaza could exclude the fundamental demand of ending the blockade.

Another serious issue that requires immediate action is simply holding Israel responsible for the consequences of its actions. Shortly after the 2021 cease-fire, the UN Human Rights Council voted for an investigation into Israel’s actions during the conflict, and the International Criminal Court will surely use evidence from this round of violence for its own ongoing investigation into the actions of Israel and Palestinian militant groups. These investigations were immediately condemned by Israel, which has a long history of blocking external investigations and conducting internal investigations that almost always exonerate Israeli actors. Such independent investigations must persist; they must be carried out and supported by international actors, despite pressure to the contrary. Importantly, they should not be added to the many condemnations that go nowhere; instead, they must serve as a framework for reparations and potential punitive measures.

While the lives lost can never be recovered, Israel rarely if ever is forced to compensate for the hundreds of millions of dollars in damage that its advanced military equipment inflicts on Gaza. This is despite Israel’s continuing status as the occupying power in the Gaza Strip which, according to the 1949 Geneva Convention, charges it with complying with certain obligations that include prohibiting the destruction of personal or public property, facilitating proper working of institutions devoted to children, and ensuring food, medical supplies, hygiene, and public health. On the rare occasion that Israel has publicly paid damages—when it compensated the United Nations with $10.5 million for damage to its buildings after the 2008 assault—both Israel and the United Nations were criticized by human rights groups like Amnesty International for prioritizing rebuilding a foreign entity’s property over compensating the actual victims of the attacks.

Further, as previously discussed, advantages to Israel include that its companies receive financial incentives for rebuilding Gaza’s destruction, and the government has the gruesome and cynical opportunity to try out its newest military equipment on Palestinians before selling it abroad as “battle-tested.” There is almost no cost, financial or otherwise, for Israel’s disproportionate bombing of the dense territory, including its residential areas. Israel should no longer be allowed to justify any and all violence against Palestinians (structural or physical) on “security” grounds and subsequently to evade any accountability. Like any other country, Israel must be forced to weigh its own domestic considerations while considering the fundamental rights of other human beings, and especially those living under its control but who are not afforded the privileges and protections of citizenship.

Palestinian governance must also contend with its own dysfunction. The schism between the increasingly authoritarian Hamas and Fatah factions has only served the entities that appear to be benefiting from the status quo. The canceled elections of 2021 fuel the narrative that Palestinian governance in its current form is illegitimate and that its participants are only interested in their own power and self-preservation. To be clear, this does not excuse Israel and the rest of the world from assuring Palestinian human rights. Yet Palestinians do not speak with one voice on the world stage, and many of the voices that do speak for Palestinians, starting with President Abbas, do not represent the vibrant and dynamic Palestinian youth who are ready to present a different vision of liberation. The PA has allowed itself to be boxed into the narrative of a two-state solution, putting Palestinian rights on hold until the stars align for the perfect political moment that, as should be increasingly clear, is never coming. No one suffers more from this stasis than the residents of Gaza.

International law permits the right of self-defense, which Israel and its defenders repeat at length any time Israeli forces respond to Hamas rockets with massive bombardment or ground invasions. Yet, what is self-defense for the Palestinians in the context of decades of brutal occupation and almost a decade and a half of a crippling siege? The international community seems content to allow Israel to maintain an illegal blockade of civilians and to demolish Palestinian homes, forcibly expel Palestinian residentsappropriate Palestinian landkill and abuse Palestinians with little to no investigation, erect walls and checkpointsbuild illegal settlements, enact discriminatory laws and policies, openly use racist language against Palestinians (including those living as Israeli citizens), make annexation a core policy plank, and commit a number of other injustices. If security concerns start and end with Hamas rockets, then they are not about peace, or justice, but “complete quiet”—from Palestinians, whom Israel expects to be submissive and docile in the face of egregious human rights violations.

Palestinians do not benefit from endless condemnations or concerns when their rights are trampled and their lives are treated as disposable. If these fundamental injustices are ignored again, this most recent bout of attacks will not be the last. And as recent attacks have made necessary, the international community will once again be asked to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to “rebuild” Gaza after yet another Israeli assault on its people.

Photo credit: Flickr/United Nations