Eight months after the latest military conflict between Israel and Hamas, the strip still looks freshly bombed. Reconstruction is almost nonexistent. Yellow flowers are blooming across the decimated neighborhoods of Beit Hanoun, Shejaiya, and Khuza’a. People sit in tents and shacks behind the gnarled carcasses of their homes, waiting for bags of cement stuck across the border, remembering that they have nowhere to flee. One of the only places with ongoing construction in Gaza is the office building of the Ministry of Public Works and Housing. Piles of sand, bricks, and cement sit outside its first floor, where workers are finishing a new wall. Inside, acting deputy minister Naji Sarhan laughs, “That cement? They bought it on the black market.” Even the Ministry itself couldn’t get cement any other way, he said, because building materials are so scarce.
The war that killed 2,132 Palestinians and 71 Israelis ended with a temporary ceasefire and an international conference in Cairo six weeks later. There, representatives of more than 60 countries agreed to work with the Palestinian unity government toward establishing a lasting ceasefire and paradigm shift that would end the violence, lift Gaza’s blockade, reconstruct the strip, and reestablish economic, social, and political connections between Gaza and the West Bank. But six months after the conference, the donors’ goals are far from being realized. Out of the $3.5 billion pledged reconstruction funds for Gaza, only $935 million (26.8 percent) has been disbursed. According to a recent report by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), 17,500 families are still homeless. Without adequate shelter during the winter, children died of hypothermia while sleeping amid the ruins of their former homes.
Donors haven’t fulfilled their pledges for a number of reasons. According to Basil Nasser, acting head of the UNDP’s Gaza office, “Donors have fatigue. They can’t pay and keep seeing destruction.” Since Hamas came into power in Gaza in 2007, the strip has suffered three military conflicts with Israel: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, which resulted in at least 1,440 Palestinian deaths, over 5,000 injuries, and more than $659 million in infrastructure damage; Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which damaged at least 382 residences, 240 schools, three hospitals, and thirteen primary health care centers; and last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, which will cost an estimated $4 billion for relief, recovery, and reconstruction. “There must be a good commitment from Israel and Palestinian factions that brings us a period of quiet,” Nasser said.
In addition, some donors have hesitated to disburse their pledges because of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) insufficient progress in securing control over Gaza. Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian factions formed a unity government last June, aiming to have presidential and parliamentary elections within six months. But since the war, the split between Ramallah and Gaza has deepened, with politicians unable to agree on issues ranging from fuel taxes to government workers’ salaries to staffing Gaza’s checkpoints. Elections are indefinitely delayed. This lack of unity in Palestinian leadership discourages aid efforts from abroad, Nasser said. “Donors feel the government is not very serious about helping Gaza,” he added, noting that the unity government’s leaders had only visited the strip three times in ten months. “We need to see them here easing the blockade, meeting with the ministries, and showing real national reconciliation.”
In the meantime, Israel and Egypt’s blockade of Gaza is not only strangling its economy, but also blocking recovery and access to essential humanitarian needs like electricity, water, and medicine. Would-be donors have little faith that their aid would actually enter the strip or be used for proper recovery and sustainable development. “Donors stopped their projects because they have money but not the materials,” acting deputy minister Sarhan said. The key ingredients for rebuilding Gaza’s 12,400 completely destroyed and 6,600 severely damaged housing units, for example, are cement, aggregate, and steel bars. Israel restricts these items’ entry into Gaza, labeling them as “dual-use” materials that could be used for militant terrorist activity. The international community has tried to work around this by enacting the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), a UN-monitored system of allowing construction materials into Gaza based on individual assessments of each home or infrastructure project. But Israeli authorities still decide whether cases are approved, how much cement to allow them, and how long it takes to come—as of February, Israel had allowed 54,252 tons of cement into Gaza, less than 4 percent of the 1.5 million tons of cement needed for reconstruction. In late March, Israel added wood to the list of restricted materials.
After the last two wars, Gaza had access to reconstruction materials smuggled from Egypt through illegal tunnels. But this time around the border is sealed—the official Rafah crossing is almost entirely closed and Egyptian authorities destroyed hundreds of tunnels. The government there cites security and counterterrorism as reasons for closing the border, especially after a rise in armed attacks in the Sinai after Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power in 2013. But the actual extent of arms flow between Gaza and Sinai is unclear. Since Rafah is closed, the only way of passage is through Erez crossing, which Israel has limited to “exceptional humanitarian cases” only—allowing a monthly average of 6,270 exits in 2014, half of whom were businesspeople.
Amid all this, people in Gaza are barely living. Two years before the latest war, the UN issued a report warning that Gaza would be virtually unlivable by 2020. Ninety-five percent of Gaza’s water was already unfit for human consumption, and Gaza’s only aquifer was predicted to become unusable by 2016. Gaza’s sole power plant was hit twice by Israeli airstrikes during the war, and now functions at half capacity with a schedule of eight hours on, eight hours off. Access to Gaza by air and sea remain forbidden, fishermen are restricted from moving beyond six nautical miles from shore, farmers are blocked from the 35 percent of their agricultural lands located in Access Restricted Areas, and 90 percent of factories and workshops closed since the blockade began in 2007.
Still, people hold weddings, fish, farm, study, and survive, but without real hope for a long-term future. The unemployment rate is 45 percent, 63 percent for youth. More than 70 percent of the population is food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity. 100,000 individuals are homeless, and hundreds have drowned to death after escaping Gaza by smuggling onto boats into the Mediterranean. Those who stay are exposed to increasing desperation that some fear will lead to radicalization.
Alice Su is an Amman-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter @aliceysu.