This past month, Gazans entered their 15th year under Israeli and Egyptian blockade, under which over two million people are cut off from the world. The escalations this past May were another cycle of violence known too well to generations of Palestinians in Gaza. Caught between an occupying force and an armed group, ceasefires have lost their meaning to many Gazans and have become temporary band-aids before being held hostage to another round of attacks. When this latest ceasefire was announced on May 25, the international community called for sending assistance to help Gazans rebuild. But what does reconstruction and rebuilding look like in what many have described as an “open air prison“? How do you rebuild when you cannot access the most basic necessities? Despite numerous attempts by humanitarian agencies to stopgap persisting needs, the compounded destruction and isolation guarantee, many Gazans are further dependent on international aid.
In June of 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the densely-populated narrow Gaza Strip where movement of people and goods were extremely restricted. Since then, life in Gaza has become untenable for its residents. In a recent report to the UN General Assembly, the UN found the poverty rate from 2007 to 2017 increased from 40 to 56 percent. Most Gazans have no access to regular electricity, clean water, or functioning sewage and waste management systems. The unemployment rate is 43 percent, one of the highest rates in the world and close to 80 percent of those that work earn less than minimum wage. The economic strangulation caused by the blockade has stymied economic growth and hampered Gaza’s ability to be self-sufficient. Israel has a long list of goods that it bans from entering Gaza including items deemed as “dual-use” like fertilizer, medical equipment, and many construction materials. Compounded by the violence and destruction, the UN concludes that the impact of the blockade on Gaza’s economy has caused a “reversal in industrialization and agriculturalization.” Consequences of the blockade have resulted in about 80 percent of Gazans becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance, where a million Palestinians in Gaza rely on international organizations to access daily food.
During the 11-day escalation in May of this year, Israeli airstrikes killed more than 230 people and displaced over 77,000. The housing ministry in Gaza estimates that 16,800 housing units had been damaged, with about 2,800 structures being unfit for living or completely destroyed. Palestinians in Gaza receive electricity through a rotation cycle. However, due to major damage to power lines, many now only get three to four hours of electricity per day. Gaza’s power plant relies on diesel fuel, which experiences continuous disruptions coming from Israel. Many children are out of school or have experienced disruptions to their education because during escalations; schools function as temporary shelters for families forced to flee Israeli airstrikes.
This round of violence is one of many that have cyclically erupted in Gaza every few years. In addition to the grave impacts the blockade has on the economy, reconstruction efforts have been significantly hampered. The policy for banning “dual-use” items means that cement, steel, and other construction materials needed for rebuilding homes and infrastructure is restricted and only accessible to Gazans if the Israeli authorities grant the permits. After every round of violence, the international community corrals around a new reconstruction plan. In 2014, a tripartite agreement between the UN, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority launched the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) to facilitate reconstruction. However, some have critiqued this mechanism, accusing it of “normalizing” the blockade. Moreover, the GRM was intended to improve the delivery of “dual-use” goods into Gaza. In reality, the Israeli government controls the permits to allow the entry of these items, giving them effective power over any reconstruction plans. Five years after the establishment of the GRM, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza-based non-profit, determined in a stocktaking meeting that the rate of worsening conditions in Gaza outrun the slow rate of approvals facilitated through the GRM. The mechanism has been deemed a failure due to the intractable political situation and the delay from donors in fulfilling their funding commitments.
The reconstruction saga continued after May’s escalations. Immediately after the ceasefire announcement last month, donor states once again began making public pledges to assist in the rebuilding of Gaza. However, again, these announcements were contingent on political criteria . These criteria prolong the status quo and the imposition of the blockade as Israel seeks to “squeeze Hamas to the point of collapse while limiting its military freedom of action and its ability to acquire military material.” Additionally, there are challenges to the delivery of aid, which can be unpredictable even when goods do make it through into Gaza. The head of Gaza operations for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) made some public comments that were misconstrued and led to threats against UNRWA staff. This caused disruptions in urgently-needed assistance to Gazans and could possibly undermine efforts by UNRWA and other aid agencies to respond to the surmounting reconstruction needs.
Despite these obstacles and international paralysis when it comes to recovery efforts, Gazans have not waited for assistance to undertake reconstruction efforts. Local initiatives and campaigns to clean up and crowdsource have frequently sprung up. In 2014, when Israel attacked the Islamic University of Gaza, student groups immediately launched a clean-up campaign made up of student and alumni volunteers that “didn’t want to wait for anyone else to help” to remove the debris. Similar initiatives happened after this round of violence. Thousands of volunteers took to the streets as part of the We Will Rebuild It social media campaign where members of the Action Aid Palestine youth group provided volunteers with brooms to sweep the streets of Gaza. These local solutions, although small-scale and unlikely to significantly improve the situation in Gaza, are exercises of agency and hope by Palestinians. As long as genuine solutions are hostage to the political process, these ad hoc volunteer efforts are all that Gazans can do to keep moving.
In order to improve the lives of almost two million Palestinians, Gaza needs a long-term approach that focuses beyond the short-term nature of humanitarian assistance. Needs are rising because the root causes driving those needs are ignored. As we saw under the Trump Administration’s funding cuts to UNRWA, foreign assistance is dependent on politics, and donor appetite and it is not always driven by needs. Holding Palestinians in Gaza hostage to politics in abysmal living conditions is essentially collectively punishing them for behaviors of maligned political actors. Almost half of Gazans are refugees, and many have lost their homes with the hope of dignified returns. Reconstruction in Gaza has understandably focused on rebuilding infrastructure because of the severe destruction, but physical reconstruction is not enough. Programs are needed to restore services, increase jobs, and invest in youth activities—programs that enable Gazans to retake control of their lives and to empower them to determine their own futures. This is only possible when the blockade is lifted and people and goods can move freely. Anything short of that will strengthen the strangulation and guarantee that Palestinians in Gaza remain in the open-air prison.