Gaza Reconstruction Conference – Pledges and Implementation

Sunday, October 12th, 2014 reminded us of March 2nd, 2009. At that time, countries around the world met and promised to provide the Palestinian Authority with 4.7 billion dollars for the reconstruction of Gaza after the Cast Lead war was launched by Israel against the Gaza Strip, even though the PA demand was 1.3 billion dollars. Saudi Arabia pledged to donate one billion dollars for reconstruction, but now it has promised to donate half a billion dollars. In the last war during the summer of 2014, the mass destruction was equivalent to five times the destruction in the 2009 war, and this does not bode well. The majority of the promises after the Cast Lead war in 2008/2009 have not been implemented. A few Arab and Western countries committed to the payment of the funds while other countries, especially Western ones, did not pay the money that was promised. Instead, they supported some international institutions which have managed to rebuild some of the citizens’ buildings that were demolished during the war, in addition to support for the PA budget.

Many of the owners of the buildings that were destroyed by the recent war (Protective Edge) are waiting to rebuild their homes. Many factories, farms, public buildings, and infrastructure projects have been destroyed during the successive wars and invasions by Israel against the Gaza Strip. Starting furiously after the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit through the 2008/2009 war, the war of 2012 and the recent war in July/August 2014, the outcome was the destruction of tens of thousands of homes and institutions, mosques, schools, factories and businesses, water projects, sanitation systems and roads.

The 2014 Cairo Donors Conference

The 2014 conference, which was held in Cairo, indicated a lack of optimism or generosity of the Arab and Western countries. As predicted, the Arab countries will be at the forefront of donations for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. But their payments will remain promises until the start of reconstruction. In my opinion, it is long overdue! It was necessary to find shelter for those who lost their homes and loved ones during the recent war on the Gaza Strip, which were better than the caravans (containers) that were offered to them.

Many governmental institutions and international organizations carried out an inventory of losses caused by the war. Their standards differ from each another, depending on the experience of the person, leaving the citizen puzzled about the possibility and proximity of the reconstruction process. Some international institutions and the Palestinian ministries have been contracted for the manufacture of caravans as part of the relief effort. Houses made from tin for those whose homes were destroyed by the recent war in the Gaza Strip were perhaps the easiest solution. But it is considered one of the most dangerous because of its negative effects on Palestinian society. Living in such caravans will not protect them from the hot sun or the cold of winter and will bring people back to the years of the first half of the previous century when Israel expelled the Palestinians out of their homes and properties in 1948. In addition, the caravans consume a lot of land. They do not offer privacy to those who inhabit such caravans due to the conservative and private lives our people live. It was expected that the consensus government will begin to establish compatibility in high-rise buildings. The buildings will consist of 10 floors. Each floor will offer 4 apartments to be rented to those who lost their homes for symbolic fees, equivalent to $10 per year. With a signed pledge that they will evacuate their apartments after the completion of reconstruction, such apartments will then be sold through a mortgage system to new couples or any others in a reasonable and subsidized price.

Every prefab high-rise building containing 40 apartments or more occupies an area of land equal to those operated by 4 caravans for just four families! It is possible to accomplish dozens of these buildings in 4-6 months, when the building materials will be introduced to Gaza.

There is also the possibility to import equipment and elements of those prefab buildings (e.g. buildings made ??of steel). Prefabs can be set up during very short periods not exceeding one month after their arrival to their locations. I advise owners of demolished houses to choose the contractors themselves according to their knowledge, and to rebuild their homes in the legal and sound manner as they see fit. They should take into account that the compensation would be for space and areas that were demolished during the war, and should be disbursed to ensure implementation according to the terms of a license granted under the supervision of the engineer.

After groups of citizens whose homes have been demolished leave the high-rise buildings for their reconstructed homes, such high-rise buildings should be rehabilitated and maintained. The apartments should be converted into subsidized housing for young couples, due to the fact that there is a deficit in the number of apartments and houses available (before the recent war in Gaza there were between 50,000 --60,000 apartments). It is imperative that the mortgage law in Gaza be the same as in the West Bank so that low-income people can buy their own homes in affordable installments.

UNRWA and Reconstruction

UNRWA officials made a statement a few days before the date of the reconstruction donors’ conference in Cairo on 12/10/2014. They are reportedly ready to build 14,000 housing units in two years. I believe that the capabilities of UNRWA and its relationships with the Israeli side could allow them to introduce the building materials to do the job. The Saudi Arabia project, for example, was built on an empty state owned land, but UNRWA did not specify in its statement whether the housing units will be built as a unified project which will not be accepted by the owners of the demolished building. All owners are looking to rebuild their houses on their own, and not by another contractor making required alterations.

UNRWA, like other international institutions, is looking to have the largest share in the reconstruction process. International institutions charge amounts up to 20% of the costs for management, design and supervision.

The role of national and civil institutions

There are many national institutions, civil, engineering consultancy firms, and contracting companies that have suffered a lot during the past years. They insist on playing an active role in the reconstruction and do not accept having a marginal role in this project, especially since their experiences enable them to contribute significantly to the re-construction of public and private buildings as well as to infrastructure projects. There are many large-scale projects that were realized and carried out, depending on local expertise or in association with international companies. Local institutions have suffered a lot during the past years, so they expect the national consensus Government to be engaged in the big share of Gaza reconstruction projects.

Construction materials and heavy equipment

The introduction of building materials and heavy equipment to the Gaza Strip within special regulations and requirements was agreed upon in a meeting between the Palestinian Prime Minister, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and the Israeli civil administration in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As a result of the meeting, cement and building materials for the private sector is scheduled to begin soon. In addition, 500 international observers, the installation of cameras, the establishment of private stores, and inclusion of GPS instruments on heavy equipment to ensure that no leakage of building materials - especially cement – could go to other destinations, the cement and building materials is scheduled to begin to be introduced to the private sector soon!

PA government's plan for Gaza Reconstruction

The Palestinian delegation to the conference was able to convince the donors to contribute $ 4 billion towards reconstruction, including $2.4 billion earmarked for the reconstruction of buildings. Israel should permit reconstruction soon, especially since there are hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and children of the Gaza Strip, living in very difficult conditions. Given the absence of many basic requirements of life from such as housing, electricity, water and sanitation, the PA has already received promises from donor countries to receive more than $5 billion.

We know that the Palestinian problem is no longer the first case in the world and that there are other problems that concern the entire world, especially in the West. I was informed by one of the officials in the European Union - before the date of the conference – that he was not expecting to get a lot of money for Gaza reconstruction at the Cairo conference, especially since the West and the U.S. are busy with other cases such as the Islamic State (ISIS), Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

The process of reconstruction has many requirements and cannot begin without housing, infrastructure, governmental buildings, public institutions, industry, agriculture, environmental projects. Damages were extensive but, there were some citizens capable of rebuilding the war-ravaged properties because they could not wait. This was done in the industrial and agricultural fields, as well as in the private sector, because citizens are still waiting for compensation that has already been approved by the relevant committees after destruction of their properties during the previous wars and invasions.

My opinion on these matters is summarized below:

    - Grant the necessary powers to the Government of the National Coalition, formed on June 6th, 2014, which needs to be recognized by the international community and Israel;
    - Ensure the international support for the reconstruction through donors pledges during the conference held in Cairo on the twelfth of October 2014;
    - Guarantee from Israel that demolished buildings and other institutions are safe from destruction after being rebuilt;
    - The formation of an independent technical commission in Palestine composed of specialized experts for the reconstruction of Gaza
    - The development of laws and bi-laws necessary for the protection of the local Palestinian companies from other companies competition;
    - The success of indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas to reach a long-term truce, which may lead to the establishment of a seaport and rebuild the Gaza airport, (these 2 projects were not covered by the government reconstruction plan;)
    - Fully re-opening all the crossings with Israel, to ensure the introduction of the largest amount of construction materials and heavy equipment necessary for Gaza reconstruction, and the removal of restrictions imposed by Israel in this area, particularly with regard to international observers.

This is in addition to other matters related to the development of the Gaza Strip and is no less important, though they are not preconditions for Gaza reconstruction, such as:

    - Re-study the establishment of a tripartite free industrial zone in Rafah to take advantage of duty-free export to the United States;
    - The possibility of converting the Gaza Strip to a distinct international free trade zone;
    - The need to open a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to facilitate the import and export operations between the two regions;
    - The study of the expansion of operations to generate electricity and to encourage the use of solar energy in homes, roads and public buildings;
    - The need to study the possibility of supplying the Gaza Strip with portable water, either by the establishment of a sea water desalination plant (cost of up to $500 million) or by importing water;
    - Financing the construction of 3 sewage treatment plants in Gaza, Khan Younis and Rafah for the use of treated water in irrigation and pumping excess water in aquifers to compensate for the over pumped consumption and prevent the continuation of the flow of sea water to the Aquifer.