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The occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza has endured half a billion dollar’s worth of damage from its recent war but rebuilding in the strip since a ceasefire ended fighting between Israel and Hamas on 21 May 2021 has been delayed by wrangling over ownership of the reconstruction efforts and restrictions at the border.
The May war started after Jewish settler groups attempted to evict Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem and a police raid on Al-Aqsa mosque descended into chaos.
By 10 May, Hamas, which governs Gaza, fired rockets from the southern enclave into Israel after issuing a request for Israel to withdraw security personnel from the holy site. Israel retaliated via airstrikes and artillery.
More than 250 people died as a result of the fighting, including 66 children, which incurred up to 380 million dollars in physical damage and 190 million dollars in economic losses, as revealed by a Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment by the World Bank.
“This is yet another unfortunate episode in which the Palestinian people in Gaza saw themselves in the midst of conflict and destruction,” said Kanthan Shankar, World Bank Country Director for West Bank and Gaza.
“The humanitarian crisis is worsened in an economy with very limited ties to the outside world. Gaza’s GDP may contract by 0.3% in 2021 compared to an estimated 2.5% annual growth before the conflict,” he added.
May’s hostilities, as well as the pandemic, have compounded already weak socioeconomic conditions caused by three decades of conflict and restrictions imposed by Israel.
Around 50 percent of Gazans are unemployed, 62% of people are now food insecure and social safety nets as well as livelihoods have been damaged. One in five people is without access to potable water while requisite material required for the water sector is seriously lacking and has impeded key water infrastructure.
Israel continues to block many items necessary for reconstruction from entering Gaza, primarily under a blockade since 2007 after Hamas came into power. While Israel has said it would ease restrictions at the border, some condemn anything short of a full reopening of crossings.
Director of UNRWA in Gaza Sam Rose said “the closure of the only commercial crossing between Gaza and Israel” had led to supply shortages.
“Reconstruction in the Gaza Strip has not started yet, and we, like many others, are deeply concerned over the continued Israeli closure of the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing point,” he said.
The delays have occurred despite millions of pounds of pledges from the international community for Gaza and could be further compounded as reconstruction will likely occur through the much censured Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). The UN-created GRM oversees that any materials do not get into the hands of Hamas, which GRM proponents say will be exploited by the group for its own defence needs. However, some have countered this argument by saying the group is likely to have its own resources and that the GRM’s slower process and inflated costs only hinder the country’s rebuilding.
Inside the strip, some have already embarked on construction using the rubble from the war and Gaza’s largest union has said it would boycott any bids from companies committed to using GRM-approved materials, which require the PA and Israel’s approval with the latter allowed a veto over projects.
According to Naji Sarhan, minister of public works and housing, 1,800 homes were destroyed and 16,800 were partially damaged in the recent bout of fighting, as well as 151 industrial facilities, 500 commercial, 540 agricultural and 120 government facilities.
However, international intermediaries like the US are keen to use the Palestinian Authority (PA), controlled by Fatah, as a conduit for reconstruction efforts and wider aid, including delivering Qatari cash grants.
Hamas has rejected the demands on Qatari grant dispersal made by Israel while saying it has no issue working with the PA in partnership to rebuild Gaza but that it should not take exclusive control. Now both the PA and Hamas are competing for support for their processes from a range of Muslim and Arab countries.
The PA is not only backed by the US and Israel but also the UN and EU. Various actors in Gaza oppose a PA-led process, however, recounting them as slow, as seen in 2014.
Various international donors have pledged millions of dollars, including Egypt, which pledged 500 million dollars for reconstruction, and who is mediating the current ceasefire. Analysts remain skeptical over the Egyptians part in diplomacy and aid efforts for Gaza. The North African nation led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has an interest in strengthening its relationship with the US and bolstering its appearance as a major international and regional player while diverting attention away from its dire human rights record.
Despite the Egyptian ceasefire mostly sticking, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on Monday 26 July, said it struck a Hamas military base after the launch of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip. The attack also prompted Israel to restrict the strip’s fishing zone from 12 to six nautical miles, blaming Hamas for the consequences of the attack, although it re-expanded the zone after four days.
Aid organisations are concerned that humanitarian aid is also being restricted and on Sunday 25 July, Qatari fuel trucks were stopped from entering the southern enclave — the Gulf nation has provided subsidised fuel as part of its multi-million-dollar aid package to Gaza — delaying their delivery. Israel has an interest in curtailing Qatari subsidies since the recent escalation in violence as it believes it had been previously too lenient towards Hamas.
According to Dr. Adnan Abu Amer from the University of the Ummah in Gaza, it is pushing to end cash subsidies provided by Qatar, which Hamas warns would lead to an “explosive situation in the strip” as many Gazans rely on these handouts.
Meanwhile, Israeli and Hamas officials have been in ceasefire negotiations in Cairo. Many have felt that the ceasefire remains precarious with Israel prepped for a new bout of fighting. Made under US pressure, many underlying issues before the agreement remain unresolved, including the ongoing aggression and demolitions in East Jerusalem and prisoner exchanges. Israel wants large reconstruction projects to be conditional upon the return of two soldiers and two other civilians held captive by Hamas.
A recent security council meeting also revealed that there was concern that the Gaza reconstruction efforts should not detract from the wider goal of ending the Israeli occupation.
Lynn Hastings, Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator at the UN said that “any sustainable future in Gaza requires political solutions” and that Israel must end the demolition of Palestinian property as under international law.
However, for now, due to Israel’s ruling coalition and the fact the Palestinian Israeli Ra’am Party would likely withdraw its support should Israel launch another attack, the ceasefire remains in place. Hamas is also unlikely to want to see whether the humanitarian situation in the strip can withstand another offensive.