Constant conflict in Gaza makes the Palestinians' international backers fear that their investments in reconstruction will soon become another victim of the war with Israel.
What the world builds, Israel bombs
GAZA CITY // International donors are wary of funding another rebuilding effort in Gaza, with the European Union divided over increasing pressure on Israel for a lasting solution to the Palestinian issue.
“There’s huge concern that whatever we help rebuild will be destroyed again,” said a European diplomat in charge of his country’s development aid in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“We need fundamental changes to the situation on the ground so that we don’t repeat what keeps on getting repeated.”
Palestinian officials said last week the Israeli offensive that began on July 8 caused US$6 billion (Dh22bn) worth of damage. Nearly 1,900 Palestinians, mostly civilian, have been killed so far.
The onslaught destroyed important infrastructure, homes, and even entire neighbourhoods, including Shujaieh, Beit Hanoun and Khuzaa.
Palestinian officials said the destruction from the latest offensive surpassed that from Israel’s eight-day war in 2012 and even its three-week onslaught that began in December 2008 and killed at least 1,400 Palestinians.
But the United Nations and countries that fund development and reconstruction projects in the aid-dependent Palestinian territories fear that any new investment in Gaza, which has been under a blockade imposed by Israel since Hamas took over in 2007, could be futile if the underlying causes of the conflict are not addressed.
Israel along with the United States and EU classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Backed by Egypt, Israel’s blockade has long hampered reconstruction from previous wars by severely restricting the importation of construction materials.
“Huge swathes of Gaza have been levelled. We cannot rebuild it with our hands tied behind our backs,” Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), said on Saturday.
“It is time for Israel to enable, not disable. It is time for the world to recognise the blindingly obvious — that the Gaza conflict requires a political solution.”
Hamas insists that Israel lift its blockade as part of a ceasefire deal that Egypt has been trying to broker, while the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, wants an end to Israel’s 47-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that, along with Gaza, are wanted for a Palestinian state.
Last week, Britain, France and Germany presented Israel, the PA and Egypt with a proposal to resolve the Gaza crisis. It includes demilitarising Hamas, international monitors, including from the EU, at the Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt, an unspecified plan for reconstruction, and putting the PA back in control of Gaza.
But there are tensions among these countries about whether to go further in pressuring Israel. This has surfaced at meetings with senior EU diplomats in Jerusalem, including at least one held last week.
Diplomats familiar with the discussions said Britain and Germany were at odds with France’s call for a EU policy that more firmly addresses Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. This includes exerting more pressure on Israel over its building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“The French are the ones who are taking the charge in saying that they can’t continue to pay for this cycle of destruction,” one diplomat said, adding that representatives from Denmark and Belgium also said the EU “needs to start moving on this”.
The EU spends $600 million on the Palestinian territories each year, apart from individual donations by its 28 members states.
Along with funding from the United States and Arab countries, the money props up the PA and pays for UN-implemented projects in Gaza.
In recent years, the EU has expressed growing anger at Israel for destroying its projects in the West Bank as well as Gaza. The European Commission estimates that between 2001 and 2011, Israel destroyed at least $66m worth of European-supported development and humanitarian projects in the territories. Much of that occurred during the second Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 and the 2008-2009 war.
During the second intifada, some $12.7m worth of Spanish, German and Swedish investment was destroyed when Israel attacked Gaza’s now-defunct airport.
The 2008-9 Gaza war saw the destruction of a $1.47m Swedish-funded project for bolstering the electricity network to homes and schools.
In addition to the EU, international institutions such as the World Bank have tried to to improve wastewater treatment and increase the water supply, and rehabilitate Gaza’s decrepit electrical network.
The UN deputy humanitarian chief, Kyung-wha Kang, last week listed the “utter devastation” from the latest Gaza war: 144 schools and other facilities damaged, a public health system “on the verge of collapse” with one-third of hospitals, 14 primary health care clinics and 29 ambulances damaged, more than one million of the territory’s 1.8 million people without access to water and limited electricity, and the prevalence of unexploded ammunition.
The territory’s sole power plant, which is insured by a US-based company, was hit in an Israeli strike last month.
Also damaged was a building in the UAE-funded $66m Sheikh Zayed City residential compound in the northern village of Beit Lahia. Residents said the fourth-floor of a building in the complex was wiped out by three Israeli strikes last month.
An international donor meeting for Gaza is to be held in Norway next month. Yet, there is concern about a repeat of the donor conference after the 2008-2009 war, where only a fraction of the nearly $5 billion pledged for rebuilding came through.
“We hope to receive help, but promises aren’t always kept here,” said Naji Sarhan, Gaza’s deputy minister of public works.
“It’s hard to convince people to come here when they know Israel acts as our agent of destruction.”
With additional reporting by Associated Press