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Hard winter in store for Gazans after summer of destruction

October 29, 2014 at 11:09 am

Gazans are facing a hard winter without adequate shelter after a summer of destruction. Gaza emerged from the recent assault over July and August in tatters: over 2,000 Gazans had lost their lives, 100,000 people had their homes destroyed and the public infrastructure was in pieces. As temperatures drop, their situation looks all the more precarious.

Last December, after days of relentless rain, sections of Gaza were transformed into lakes. While photographs of Jerusalem engulfed in snow made the headlines, the hundreds of damaged homes in the besieged strip did not. This December, tens of thousands of Gazans will still be homeless as a result of the Strip’s summer bombardment by the Israeli military.

Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN’s agency for refugees (UNRWA) is concerned how the population will cope: “In Gaza, people are facing a potentially very difficult winter.” He said: “Remember the snow last year, when this melted, there was water as far as the eye could see. Now we have a looming appalling winter and public infrastructure has been destroyed on an industrial scale.”

Donors recently pledged 5.4 billion dollars to rebuild Gaza, but the reconstruction effort, despite the funds, will largely hinge on a United Nations-brokered mechanism to monitor and supervise the process. Truckloads of cement, steel and gravel that Israel allowed into Gaza on Oct. 14, in what the Israeli ministry of defence claimed was a “pilot” test for the mechanism, still sits in the warehouse. Meanwhile, UNRWA and humanitarian aid agencies are working around the clock to ensure Gazans are prepared for the winter.

The mechanism plans to monitor the import, storage and sales of building materials in an attempt ensure that they will not be used to rebuild the tunnel network leading to Israel or for militants to make rockets. Israel justifies the blockade which has strangled Gaza for the past seven years on the grounds of security and any plans to bring large bulks of building materials have to include a plan to safeguard these concerns for Israel to agree.

According to details leaked to the Guardian, under the mechanism, basic goods, such as cement, steel and gravel, are considered “dual use” materials and require a military application, video cameras will be installed in warehouses and inspection teams will be created. This has led to criticisms that it will potentially create a new restrictive monitoring regime.

These concerns may be well grounded. For example, under the mechanism, Palestinian homeowners who require building materials will have to register their ID number, address and family status on a database. This database will be available to Israeli officials, including its intelligence agencies, and Israel will be given forty-eight hours to object to any name on the list. In essence, it would seem the UN has given Israel the power to say who can and cannot rebuild their homes. The personal information which will be gathered and made available to intelligence agencies will also not instil confidence in the Palestinians who are already too well acquainted with the dark side of Israeli intelligence.

For large-scale works – including schools and factory reconstruction – imports would be covered by the UN’s most stringent counter-terrorism rules, with Israel being asked to process all “project submissions”, albeit within an agreed time. This effectively gives Israel the right to approve or potentially veto major building projects, including their location. Some say this will simply put the UN in charge of continuing Israel’s blockade. They also say it legitimizes Israel’s control over the Strip.

Despite the concerns, Gunness remained hopeful: “We welcome the mechanism and hope it is up and running yesterday.” He added: “The mechanism is however not a substitute for lifting the blockade. Eighty percent of Gaza is aid dependent and that number is rising. The underlying cause of this is the occupation.”

While he expressed gratitude for the funds pledged at the donor conference, he says the only way that they will not have to keep asking for more money is if countries put the appropriate pressure on Israel.

Oxfam has said that under the current restrictions and rate of imports it could take more than 50 years to build the 89,000 new homes, 226 new schools and the health facilities, factories and water and sanitation infrastructure that people in Gaza need.

Catherine Essoyan, Oxfam Regional Director echoed Gunness’ words: “Five years ago donors gathered in Egypt, just as they do now, to pledge billions of dollars for Gaza’s reconstruction after the 2009 war. Five years later, more than half of the destroyed homes still hadn’t been rebuilt due to restrictions.” Essoyan stated: “Unless donors step up pressure to end the blockade, many children made homeless by the recent conflict will be grandparents by the time their homes and schools are rebuilt.”

“Winter is coming and people without homes cannot afford to wait,” she added.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.