Gaza under Closure and Rubble, UN Mechanism to Reconstruct Gaza Fails and the Only Solution Is Lifting the Closure
The latest 50-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip launched on 08 July 2014 left extensive destruction to infrastructure and catastrophic impacts on the majority of basic sectors necessary for Gaza population. The offensive, which is considered the cruelest in the Israeli occupation’s history, resulted in the destruction of thousands of civilian objects, including thousands of residential units; hundreds of commercial, industrial and agricultural facilities; poultry and animal barns; and dozens of mosques, schools, kindergartens, colleges, universities, hospitals, churches, banks, NGOs, police stations and sport centers.
In coincidence with the Israeli military operations, the Israeli-imposed closure has been ongoing for over 8 years with its cruelest forms although a ceasefire agreement was reached on 26 August 2014, after which Gaza reconstruction became a top priority for the relief of tens of thousands of affected persons, over 250,000 of whom had their houses destroyed; 110,000 of them became homeless.
The UN Middle East Envoy Robert Serry declared on 16 September 2014 the UN mechanism to reconstruct the Gaza Strip (Serry Plan for Gaza Reconstruction) and explained that the UN, Israel and the Palestinian Authority had reached a deal to allow reconstruction works to begin in the war-torn Gaza Strip under international observation of the use of materials, involving the private sector in Gaza and giving a leading role to the Palestinian Authority in the reconstruction effort. Serry highlighted that the deal provides security assurances through UN monitoring that these materials will not be diverted from their entirely civilian purpose.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), civil society organizations and the private sector strongly criticized this mechanism immediately after it was announced and considered it as institutionalization and international cover of the closure. PCHR also warned against applying this mechanism as it would aggravate the civilian population’s suffering, especially the owners of destroyed houses. Moreover, PCHR stressed that the only solution to end the serious impacts of the Israeli offensive is to immediately lift the closure and make the international community and UN in particular to acknowledge that the closure policy is illegal and falls within the policy of collective punishment imposed on civilians. It also can be ended by practicing pressure by all legal means on the Israeli authorities to put an end to all forms of the closure to allow the quick flow of construction materials in a way that can cope with the massive damage left behind by the Israeli offensive.
On 12 October 2014, a conference for Gaza reconstruction was held in Cairo under Egyptian-Norwegian auspices and leadership of the UN, EU and Arab League. Over 50 countries and 20 regional and international organizations participated in the conference to assist the Palestinian government in taking its responsibility on Gaza reconstruction and to offer the financial support to that end. The donors pledged in the conference USD 5.4 million, half of which would be allocated for Gaza reconstruction.
Six months have passed since the latest Israeli offensive finished and 4.5 months since the UN Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism entered into force and it became obvious that the mechanism failed to fulfil the minimum level of the basic needs of Gaza reconstruction. PCHR has followed up the situation since the plan entered into force and the way the UN Mechanism has been applied, and observed the following:
- The details of the UN Mechanism to reconstruct Gaza (Serry Plan) are unclear and the nature of relation between its parties (UN, Palestinian Authority and Israel) remained undeclared and unknown even to other parties interested in the construction process.
- On 14 October 2014, i.e. a month after declaring the mechanism, the actual application of the mechanism started by allowing the entry of limited quantities of construction materials; 600 tons of cement, 400 tons of steel and 2,000 tons of aggregates were allowed into the Gaza Strip according to the imports committee in Gaza. These quantities were kept for two weeks before they were distributed to about 70 persons of those whose houses were partially damaged, while other sectors affected during the offensive, especially owners of houses and facilities that were completely destroyed, were denied the receipt of any quantities of construction materials.
- Cement quantities allocated for a single private company namely Palestine Company for Commercial Services “Sanad”, were entered to be distributed by that company to 18 distribution centers belonging to private companies throughout the Gaza Strip. It should be noted that first quantities of construction materials were distributed to four centers only and were gradually increased up to 18 centers after they met the monitoring and security conditions set by the mechanism. A civilian receives his allocated quantity after he pays for them from his own money.
- It has been found that construction materials allowed into the Gaza Strip have been very limited. About 80,000, including 48,000 tons of cement, were distributed as small portions to 62,000 persons of those whose houses were partially damaged according to the Palestinian Contractors Union. It should be noted that the Gaza Strip needs 5,000,000 tons of construction materials for the reconstruction process, including 1,500,000 tons of cement, 3,000,000 tons of aggregates and 500,000 tons of steel and bitumen (according to primary needs assessment).
- Therefore, the quantities of construction materials allowed into the Gaza Strip equals weekly needs of the Gaza Strip, taking into account that the reconstruction process requires permanently opening the border crossings and allowing the entry of about 20,000 tons of construction materials, including 4,000 tons of cement, 1,600 tons of steel and 16,000 tons of aggregates according to the construction industries union. If Gaza reconstruction follows the applied mechanism, the reconstruction process will take over 20 years according to assessment of contracting and construction companies in Gaza.
- Owners of partially damaged houses received their portions allocated by the UN mechanism from the 18 distribution centers after they were informed through periodic lists issued by the Ministry of Public Works and Housing in Gaza. The Ministry called them to head to the suppliers to receive the allocated portions according to the damage limitation program implemented by UNDP and UNRWA, as the affected person should pay for the receipt of his portion.
- A number of civilians, who received their portions, complained that cement did not meet the actual need for reconstructing their houses. As a result, they were obliged to sell their limited portions in the black market, in which these portions are re-sold for multi-double the price to other persons in need for construction materials.
- The quantity of cement was entered and distributed on owners of partially or slightly damaged houses but excluded other persons whose houses and civilian property were completely destroyed, while private construction projects were not included within the mechanism. Therefore, new buildings have not been constructed so far and the crisis of construction materials has been clear in regards to the cement but not other construction materials, especially the steel and aggregates, although the entered quantities were very limited.
- This bureaucratic and slow mechanism has left catastrophic consequences on the economic and social conditions in the Gaza Strip, where all economic indicators have disastrously deteriorated, including poverty and unemployment rates, in addition to the continuation of crises on the level of human services such as health, education and social insurance. While many expected that the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism would revive the Gaza economy a little bit and offer jobs for around 200,000 workers according to the estimates of the Palestinian Contractors Union, around 70,000 workers, including engineers, technicians and workers, stopped working because about 300 contracting companies have completely stopped working. It should be noted that Israeli-imposed closure has aggravated the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip; 38.8% of Palestinian families live below poverty line, 21.1% of whom suffer from extreme poverty, and 32.5% of the Gaza Strip population are unemployed.
- The delay in the donors’ financial transfers allocated for the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism obstructs the reconstruction process, especially as many civilians who were allowed to buy construction materials lack money to buy their needs to repair their houses. Therefore, many of them were forced to sell their portions so that they can have money to fulfill their basic needs and stay alive. According to the Ministry of Housing and Public Affairs, only 200 million dollars of the financial allocations for the reconstruction were transferred i.e. 3.7% of the total money (5.4 billion dollars) which the donors pledged to offer in the Cairo International Conference on Gaza Reconstruction in response to the Palestinian people’s needs and around 8.3% of the money allocated for the Gaza reconstruction process (2.4 billion dollars).
In light of the above, PCHR:
- Believes that maintaining the same UN mechanism of the Gaza Strip reconstruction is considered a doomed-to-failure process as this mechanism has completely failed to make any achievements on the ground or meet the minimum requirements of the Gaza reconstruction process. This mechanism has even contributed to the institutionalization of the eight-year closure imposed on the Gaza Strip. Cancelling the UN mechanism is now an immediate demand after proving its failure to ease the suffering of the people affected in the latest offensive especially owners of completely destroyed houses and facilities as both have not received any compensations or construction materials to rebuild their completely destroyed property.
- The only solution to deal with the reconstruction issue is to start with making the international community and UN in particular acknowledge that the closure policy is illegal and falls within the policy of collective punishment imposed on civilians. Therefore, this requires exerting pressure by all legal means on the Israeli authorities to put an end to all forms of the closure to allow the quick flow of construction materials in a way that can cope with the massive damage left by the Israeli offensive, as the only solution viewed by the parties to the Gaza reconstruction.
- This requires lifting all restrictions imposed on the entry of necessary construction materials, so at least 10,000 tons must be entered daily to avoid the deterioration of humanitarian conditions and return to normal life in addition to moving the economic wheel and offering jobs for thousands of unemployed persons to decrease the poverty rate.
- The contribution of all parties to the reconstruction efforts needs to open the market before traders, especially who have administrative, technical or financial capacities, to compete for the construction materials, especially cement, and not allowing a specific company to monopolize them. The Israeli authorities also must expand the Kerm Abu Salem crossing and open other Gaza border crossings, which were previously closed, in response to the massive needs of the reconstruction process in order to accelerate the reconstruction pace.
- PCHR calls upon the donors to fulfill their financial obligations that they pledged to offer in the Cairo International Conference on Gaza Reconstruction as any delay in transferring money to the affected people would contribute to delaying the reconstruction process and further deterioration to the humanitarian situation. In this context, all factors that would scare the donors must be eliminated, including the ongoing Israeli closure, unclear UN Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism and ongoing Palestinian split in addition to the continued Israeli threats to launch a new offensive on the Gaza Strip.
- PCHR reminds of the international community’s failure over the past eight years to support the rules of the international humanitarian law and international human rights law. This has disappointed the Gaza people who are victims of human rights violations in the Gaza Strip and have suffered the scourge of three consecutive offensives launched by Israeli forces in less than six years in addition to the continued implications and consequences of the unjust closure on the people’s social and economic life.
- PCHR calls upon the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to take practical steps according to their legal obligations in order to force the Israeli authorities to respect the Convention and stop all policies that violate the Palestinian economic, cultural and social rights, as well as their civil and political rights.