Billions of Dollars but Zero Hope: Problems Facing Gaza Reconstruction

Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Pakistani wunderkind and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, pledged last week to donate the $50,000 from her World’s Children’s prize to help rebuild 65 United Nations schools in Gaza. Malala, who is known for having survived a Taliban attempt on her life and promoting the right to education, has said of Gaza, “without education, there will never be peace.”[1]

Image courtesy of Marius Arnesen, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Marius Arnesen, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Malala has said, in the midst of this summer’s violence, that the suffering of children and civilians in Gaza reminded her of her native area of Pakistan, wherein “400 schools were destroyed, education for girls was banned and many people were killed”. During the course of the summer, 490 Palestinian children became the newest casualties of the protracted conflict, according to UN figures. [2]

While many humanitarian groups are reflecting on the 50-day conflict and accusing Israel of war crimes, Israel maintains that it was responding to Hamas attacks or reports that Hamas was using the schools and that they were legitimate targets. What is not up for debate, however, is that the majority of the schools run by the UN in Gaza were either damaged or destroyed in this summer’s conflict. Those remaining are now being used as temporary shelters.

The Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas estimated that $4 billion would be needed for Gaza reconstruction with only 60% of the damage assessment complete. At October’s summit in Cairo a grand total of $5.4 billion (£3.4bn) was pledged. To many, this seems like crocodile tears—much of this rebuilding will never come to fruition because of the prohibitive Israeli permit process and blockade. Importing essential construction materials, particularly concrete, into Gaza will be next to impossible. Additionally, it was clarified that only $2.7 billion will be “dedicated” to Gaza reconstruction projects.[3] Still, the headline was that Kerry, Sissi, and Abbas had secured an extraordinary amount of money for a needy cause. The summit was a spectacle of political posturing: critics see Qatar’s pledge of $1 billion as intended to overshadow its Gulf rivals.[4] The Foreign Minister from Qatar, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, criticized the “international silence” whilst Gaza crumbled, but it’s not clear how much “noise” these pledges amount to.

As the dust settles and the debate about responsibility and prospects for the conflict rages on, the extent of the destruction in Gaza is clear and no time can be wasted. The message Malala is sending is that to bring about peace we need to invest more in the younger generation than killing our enemies, and the international community at least recognizes the same problem. Echoing this, the new European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini held a press conference at a UN-school-shelter, warning that violence will resume if the terms of the cease-fire, including a softening of the blockade, are not lifted. Mogherini also stressed that peace talks would need to precede reconstruction efforts. However, if such talks are seemingly elusive as Likud leadership elections loom, what are the prospects for the reconstruction of Gaza?

Though Israel permitted some construction materials into Gaza on October 14 to much acclaim, these remain inaccessible, much to the chagrin of homeowners desperate to purchase them, the international donors, and the Palestinian Authority, who want to posture as cleaning up after Hamas’ mess and rebuild a sense of legitimacy. Following reminders from Palestinian officials, there is a sense of déjà vu to 2009, wherein after an Israeli incursion much of the pledged aid never materialized.[5] This time around, not only have the international funds not reached Gaza, the body meant to monitor the flow of materials has yet to be established, and debris and rubble removal has only just begun months after the fact.

For the 100,000 buildings that were damaged or destroyed this summer in an already vulnerable area and the hundreds of thousands of displaced, the prospects for reconstruction are seemingly slim. International attention has now been diverted to escalating tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The problem is a lack of accountability and stake in the reconstruction: both the Israeli government and Hamas would rather point fingers at each other for the damage than anything else. Israel cites concerns about the materials going to build Hamas tunnels and Hamas is critical of foreign aid funneling through Israeli channels, but the status quo is not an option. With the harsh weather of winter approaching, Kerry’s plea that “The people of Gaza do need our help, desperately, not tomorrow, not next week, they need it now”, rings true. What must be kept in mind is that, though the Gaza Strip was the battleground for the Israeli-Palestinian, or really in this case, the Israeli-Hamas conflict, it is also an area in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

The bare fact of the matter is that more than 108,000 people in Gaza are now without their homes, and 450,000 have no access to water. Aid, especially aid that will have little practical impact, and rhetorical bombast are no substitute for earnest efforts and international pressure to begin the physical rebuilding of the Gaza strip and the renewal of peace talks to bring about a settlement. We cannot rebuild Gaza and walk away from a population with limited human rights and little stake in the status quo, just to have to rebuild it again.

We are faced with the same Catch-22 time and time again: there can be no peace in Gaza without access to education, employment, clean water, and other fundamental human rights, but there is no way to achieve those without peace. “Peace” in this situation is not simply a temporary cease-fire: it must be a comprehensive and permanent settlement that affords all parties a sense of dignity and justice. Gaza needs basic infrastructure and an end to its political isolation if the issues that ignited the conflict are to be resolved. Only then can the region strive towards a better future, and it is premature to pat ourselves on the back after emptying our pockets for show in the meantime. Even if the prospects for reconstruction were more optimistic than the 20-year projection we’ve been posed, these necessary humanitarian efforts will only serve to the unsustainable status quo of blockade. Though Malala and the Cairo donors may harbor noble intentions, wider context reveals that these actions are a band-aid on a festering wound.






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