Reviving the stalled reconstruction of Gaza
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on April 19, 2016, about the ongoing reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. The panelists included Omar Shaban, director of Pal-Think, a research institution based in Gaza; and Naglaa Elhag, head of rehabilitation and international development at the Qatar Red Crescent Society (QRCS). Sultan Barakat, the BDC’s director of research, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Barakat opened by noting the slow progress of reconstruction in Gaza. Almost two years since the cessation of hostilities between Hamas and Israel, the rebuilding process has stalled for a number of reasons. First, the distribution of aid money pledged by donor countries during the October 2014 Cairo Conference has slowed. According to the World Bank, as of March 31, 2016, donor countries had dispersed only 40 percent of the pledged money. At the current rate, the fulfillment of all pledges will not occur until 2019, two years after the target date. Second, construction materials only enter Gaza from one border crossing. As a result of the sluggish rebuilding process, 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. Additionally, job opportunities promised by various construction projects have failed to materialize, leading to increased feelings of desperation and frustration among Gaza’s population.
Shaban expanded on these developments, expressing the notion that the people in Gaza feel neglected. Due to the high levels of frustration, he feels that a new round of hostilities between militants and Israel could happen at any moment. He explained further by highlighting the volatility of the area and mentioning how previous conflicts were easily ignited by an array of incidents: a kidnapping, a cross-border raid, an assassination, continuous rocket fire. Since frustration among Gazans continues to mount, arguably to its highest level, renewed conflict seems almost certain. Consequently, Shaban argued, fear of another round of conflict between Hamas and Israel has instilled a sentiment of donor fatigue. Donors do not want to see their support go to waste in another round of destruction, turning the delivery of assistance into an exercise of futility.
Shaban attributed this attitude among some donors to the lack of a political solution to the crisis in Gaza. Hamas, the de-facto governing authority in Gaza, does not work for the people, nor does the Palestinian Authority (PA), based in Ramallah. Neither body provides economic opportunities for Gazans, as those employed by either the PA or Hamas often do not receive their salaries. Reconciliation talks between both groups failed to establish a unity government. Egypt, Israel, and the United States would feel more comfortable negotiating with a unity government, presumably dominated by the PA, not Hamas, which each of the aforementioned countries designate as a terrorist organization. If the PA does reach an agreement with Hamas, Egypt has implied that it would open its border with Gaza at Rafah, as long as the PA stations a security presence at the crossing. This could enhance the slow trickle of construction materials into Gaza, allow for the increased export of commercial goods, and also enable Gazans to leave and return at a higher rate than currently permitted. According to Shaban, opening another access point for Gaza to the outside world would temporarily ease the burden faced by Gaza’s citizens, but the current crisis requires a solution to ameliorate the economic and political situation in the long term.
Elhag opened her remarks by reviewing the difficulties of implementing aid projects in Gaza. While working in Gaza for the QRCS, she noticed little progress from international agencies, as they do not address the main problems, typically taking short cuts, which she highlighted by stating, “We don’t treat the wounds, we cover it with a bandage.” To elaborate on this point she mentioned that lack of access in and out of Gaza and the Israeli naval blockade as two factors hindering reconstruction. Due to these restrictions, aid workers have difficulty entering Gaza. Elhag surmised that the lack of accountability on the part of international agencies and the Israelis and the fear of aid projects being destroyed again because of the political situation both contribute to the stalled reconstruction, producing grim realities in Gaza.
Furthermore, Elhag explained that a resolution to the Gaza crisis does not rest on the distribution of money. She believes that only solutions from both sides of the conflict will end the suffering in Gaza. To exemplify the frustrations felt by donors, Elhag noted that since 2008, QRCS invested $100 million in housing units and other aid projects in Gaza, but some of these projects were destroyed during the 2014 war. QRCS observed this and shifted their focus to securing food sources and enhancing the education and health sectors in Gaza.
At the conclusion of Elhag’s observations, Barakat asked the panel where the money donated for reconstruction goes and how the Gaza reconstruction mechanism (GRM) works. Shaban described how the money actually gets funneled through the PA’s ministry of finance in Ramallah, before it reaches Gaza. Hamas officials or members of Gaza’s civil society do not oversee any aspect of aid distribution. So from the start, the distribution of funds lacks transparency, as the PA gives the money to the U.N. office in Gaza, which administers the GRM. From there, the United Nations composes a list of people in Gaza that require construction materials. The Israeli administrative body in the ministry of defense, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), must approve the names on the list. Construction materials can then be distributed through the GRM. Shaban concluded his explanation of the GRM by noting the many levels of bureaucracy involved have created a slow distribution process for a populace in desperate need.
From the regional perspective, some Arab states’ past political differences with Hamas has stymied political progress in Gaza, but the panel agreed that some of these relationships, especially with Saudi Arabia, are on the mend. The work of regional actors like Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey could help push a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas. Shaban proposed allowing some Hamas members to take part in any future coalition government, as some of their relationships in Sinai could help Egypt secure the troubled region. Cooperation on security matters between Egypt and Hamas could inspire enough confidence in the Egyptians for them to open the Rafah crossing.
Ending the discussion, Barakat clarified the proposals of the panel by reiterating the need for donors to fulfill aid pledges. The GRM needs reform, especially through the inclusion of Gaza’s civil society in the reconstruction process. Finally, reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, as well as Egypt and Hamas, would help foster security cooperation at the borders.
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