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In Gaza, the UN reconstruction plan is a symptom rather than a cure

Since 2008, Gaza has been the scene of three immensely destructive wars. A strict Israeli blockade on materials coming in and out of Gaza means that in each instance, reconstruction has been slow. After the 2008 war, a leaked UN report warned that the territory was undergoing a process of “de-development” because of delays and restrictions on building materials such as concrete, steel reinforcements, and bricks. Israel insists that these basic goods could be diverted by Hamas to build bunkers and tunnels to infiltrate Israel. (The Israeli aim in the recent war was to destroy this network of tunnels).

The situation after the latest war, which lasted 50 days earlier this year, is no different. It caused more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths and wide-scale destruction of property. Entire neighbourhoods were flattened, and a third of the population displaced. According to a UN assessment, more than 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. There was also major damage to infrastructure; many people still cannot access the municipal water network, while electricity blackouts of up to 18 hours a day are common. According to Palestinian estimates, Gaza needs almost £5bn ($8bn) to rebuild.

In September, some progress appeared to be made. The UN envoy Robert Serry announced a plan to bring in the desperately needed building material and reconstruct Gaza, under UN supervision rather than going through Hamas. The Palestinian government recently began distributing limited quantities of building supplies in the Gaza Strip, in line with the UN-brokered deal.

But that is not the whole story. A spokesman for Gaza’s chamber of commerce said this week that the UN’s system would cause unacceptable delays to the rebuilding effort. “If the UN’s monitoring plan is implemented, it would take 20 years for the Gaza Strip to be rebuilt,” said Maher al-Tabba’ in a statement. “In order to rebuild the Gaza Strip within three to five years, over 400 construction trucks should be allowed into the Strip daily without restraints.” He said that the construction materials being allowed into Gaza were about 18 per cent of the amount needed. Earlier in the week, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri on Sunday called the UN mechanism “unacceptable, inefficient”.

Some have dismissed these complaints by Hamas spokespeople as the partisan misgivings of one side in a long-running dispute. When the plan was announced in September, the Guardian reported that numerous senior international officials and NGOs had sharply criticised the plans for monitoring the import, storage, and sales of building materials, saying that strategies such as installing video cameras, establishing a team of international inspectors and a database of suppliers and consumers were more appropriate for a nuclear programme than a reconstruction effort. The plan also gives Israel the right to approve – and potentially veto – major building projects, including a say over their location.

“It’s not just Israel that should want this arrangement,” said Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, said in response to the criticism. “But NGOs and international humanitarian organisations should want this. No-one has an interest in Hamas stealing building material and they have made clear in public statements that they want to rebuild their terror tunnels.” Given that the wide-scale destruction inflicted on Gaza in the war was aimed at destroying these tunnels, it is hardly surprising that the Israeli government is not budging from its position on the tunnels.

Against this backdrop, one might argue that the UN plan at least presents some progress towards rebuilding, even if it is painfully slow and restricted. This was roughly the tone that Serry took this week, when he gave a statement about the progress of the plan: “In the absence of viable alternatives, the UN views the temporary reconstruction mechanism as an important step towards the lifting of all closures of Gaza.” This is also, presumably, why Hamas is not disrupting the plan despite publically criticizing it.

Some progress is better than no progress; but that does not mean that the excessive and heavy restrictions on the reconstruction of Gaza should be painted as a generous gift that the regime in Gaza should accept gratefully. Given the circumstances, the UN plan at least presents an opportunity to start moving forward – but undoubtedly, the red tape is making the process slow, and the restrictions on material mean that only a limited amount of building can take place. The fact remains that Gaza is subject to a crippling blockade that makes it increasingly difficult for citizens to live with dignity. Tight monitoring plans are a symptom of, rather than a cure for this.

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

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