On June 24, 2015, Palestinian Housing Minster, Mufid Al-Husayneh, announced the beginning of a new phase in Gaza’s reconstruction – the rebuilding of homes destroyed during Operation Protective Edge. Ten months after the fighting ended, despite massive destruction and international mobilization, Gaza took its first step toward rebuilding the first out of thousands of homes that were completely destroyed. What took so long?
The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism
Prior to Operation Protective Edge, Israel imposed severe restrictions on the sale of construction materials to Gaza, arguing that these were “dual use” materials, meaning that they could be used for both civilian and military purposes (see box on chronology of restrictions). The main argument was that Hamas might use construction materials purchased in Israel to build bunkers and since late 2013, that materials could be used to build tunnels for the purpose of launching attacks on Israeli territory.
Gisha has and continues to object to the definition of a basic civilian commodity such as construction materials as “dual use”, thus paving the way for blanket bans, especially when considering the fact that the ban has not proven effective in preventing tunnel building. The restrictions, coupled with the closure of most smuggling tunnels out of Egypt, did play a role in the unemployment rate in Gaza’s spiking from 27.9% in the second quarter of 2013 to 40.8% in the first quarter of 2014. The construction sector, which contributed 17% of Gaza’s GDP in the second half of 2013, before the closure of the Gaza-Egypt tunnels, and provided jobs to more than 24,000 individuals in mid-2013, has since collapsed almost completely. True to the second quarter of 2015, only 4.2% of employed workers in Gaza, or about 11,000 people, are employed in the construction sector. The unemployment rate currently stands at 41.5%.
After Operation Protective Edge, and in keeping with the consensus about the need for swift reconstruction in the Strip, Israel’s security establishment announced Israel would now allow construction materials to enter Gaza for the private sector for the purpose of reconstruction. Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, among others, expressed the need for a new approach in Gaza when he said that the balance must tilt towards hope rather than despair. Otherwise, said Gantz, the fighting might resume. Moreover, while expressing support for reconstruction, military officials admitted that Hamas would be able to build tunnels even without concrete (Hebrew) if they wanted to.
Given Israel’s concern over the possible use of construction materials for building tunnels, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, or GRM, was created. The terms of GRM were agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the United Nations implementing and supervising the mechanism. It purportedly enables Israel to monitor how construction materials entering Gaza are being used. Under the GRM, Gaza suppliers and contractors must demonstrate that they are adequately securing warehouses where construction materials are stored. The GRM also allows Israel to pre-approve those involved at every stage of construction, including determining individuals’ eligibility to buy construction materials through the mechanism and thus repair and re-build homes as well as other private sector initiatives.
It is inevitable that a complicated mechanism such as the GRM will slow down reconstruction efforts and increase costs. The question is what purpose it serves, if any. Last summer, more than 19,000 housing units were either completely destroyed or rendered inhabitable. An additional 113,000 were damaged. Despite immense need, the reconstruction of homes, as opposed to just minor repairs, has begun only recently. It was preceded by disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the formula for calculating the amount of materials needed for every square meter of construction. It was only in late June, about ten months after the cease-fire entered into effect, that a compromise was reached and a formula agreed upon.
This is not the first time that Israel has sought to employ a mathematical formula to calculate what is needed for basic civilian life in Gaza. Previous formulas, featured in what is known as the Red Lines document, rationed the minimum number of calories Gaza residents needed to survive, and were, rightly, a source of shame for the Government of Israel when Gisha exposed them. In contrast to the “Red Lines” formula, this time, a security rationale has ostensibly been articulated. It is meant to prevent construction materials from being used for building tunnels, but it turns out that the controlled shortage created by the formula is one of the causes for the emergence of a black market for construction materials, as the army itself admits. Col. Grisha Yakubovich, head of COGAT’s Civil Department told (Hebrew) Israeli TV news: “Because of the situation in Gaza, the same people who are found eligible to receive construction materials prefer to sell them in the black market, and now there is, unfortunately, a black market in the Gaza Strip, and all the people who aren’t supposed to buy, do so from the black market”.