How to revive the stalled reconstruction of Gaza

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Two years after Hamas and Israel agreed to a cessation of hostilities, reconstruction in Gaza has been painfully slow. This was the focus of a panel discussion at the Brookings Doha Center on April 19. As Senior Fellow and Director of Research Sultan Barakat explained, rebuilding has stalled in part because the distribution of aid money pledged by donor countries during the October 2014 Cairo Conference has slowed; according to the World Bank, donor countries had dispersed only 40 percent of the pledged money as of the end of March. At this rate, the pledged funds will not be dispersed until 2019, two years after the target date.

Moreover, construction materials only enter Gaza through one border crossing and must be cleared by layers of bureaucracy. As Omar Shaban—director of Pal-Think, a research institution in Gaza—explained, money for Gaza reconstruction is funneled through the PA’s ministry of finance in Ramallah, which transfers it to the U.N. office in Gaza. The United Nations composes a list of people in Gaza that require construction materials, and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat)—an Israeli administrative body in the ministry of defense—must approve the names on the list. The U.N. then distributes construction materials. Shaban emphasized that the bureaucratic nature of this process has slowed reconstruction considerably, adding that the process isn’t transparent enough, since neither Hamas officials nor members of Gaza’s civil society oversee any aspect of aid distribution.

As a result of the sluggish rebuilding process, Barakat said, only 9 percent of totally damaged houses and 45 percent of partially damaged houses in Gaza have been repaired, leaving over 14,800 families internally displaced. Meanwhile, promised job opportunities in construction projects have failed to materialize, exacerbating feelings of desperation and frustration among Gaza’s population.

[T]he process isn’t transparent enough [said Shaban], since neither Hamas officials nor members of Gaza’s civil society oversee any aspect of aid distribution.

Shaban agreed that people in Gaza feel neglected. With high levels of frustration, he expressed fear that a new round of hostilities between militants and Israel could begin at any time. Previous conflicts were easily ignited—by a kidnapping, a cross-border raid, an assassination, or continuous rocket fire. Shaban argued that the volatility of the situation may be heightening fatigue among donors, who do not want to see their support go to waste in another round of destruction.

Naglaa Elhag, head of rehabilitation and international development at the Qatar Red Crescent Society (QRCS), discussed the difficulties of implementing aid projects in Gaza. She argued that international agencies do not always address the main problems and typically take shortcuts, saying of her own organization and others: “We don’t treat the wounds, we cover it with a bandage.” She highlighted various factors slowing reconstruction, including the lack of accountability on the part of international agencies, fears of renewed conflict, and the Palestinian political stalemate. Since 2008, according to Elhag, QRCS invested $100 million in housing units and other aid projects in Gaza, but some were destroyed during the 2014 war. As a result, QRCS shifted its focus away from physical reconstruction and towards food security, education, and health. 

A related problem is the Palestinian political stalemate. According to Shaban, neither Hamas (the de-facto governing authority in Gaza) nor the Palestinian Authority (PA, based in Ramallah) provides economic opportunities for Gazans, and those nominally on Palestinian government payrolls often do not receive their salaries. Reconciliation talks have failed to establish a unity government, making Egypt, Israel, and the United States reticent to negotiate. Egypt has indicated that if the PA does reach an agreement with Hamas, it would open its border with Gaza at Rafah (presuming the PA has a security presence there). This could increase the flow of construction materials into Gaza, allow for the increased export of commercial goods, and enable Gazans to come and go more frequently. But while opening another crossing for Gaza would temporarily ease the burden faced by the people there, Shaban stressed that a long-term political and economic solution is needed. Elhag, too, emphasized that a resolution to the Gaza crisis isn’t about the distribution of money—rather, she believes a joint Israeli-Palestinian solution is needed to end the suffering in Gaza. 

In the past, tensions between some Arab states and Hamas have also hampered progress in Gaza, but the panelists agreed that some of these relationships—especially with Saudi Arabia—are on the mend. Regional actors like Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey could help push a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, which would help improve the situation in Gaza. And as Barakat stressed in conclusion, there is an urgent need for donors to fulfill aid pledges and for the Gaza reconstruction mechanism to become more inclusive, so that Gazans themselves can more fully participate in rebuilding their neighborhoods.