The mirage of reconstruction

February 11, 2015

At least 100,000 Palestinians are still living without adequate shelter more than five months after the end of Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip last summer. Gaza is home to 1.8 million people, and Israel's attack on the coastal enclave left at least 30,000 houses either fully or partially damaged, representing almost one third of all the homes in Gaza. In addition to damaged homes, many schools, hospitals and water facilities remain in ruins after being targeted and destroyed or damaged this summer.

In the context of such devastation, the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) announcement last month that it had run out of aid money for Gaza's reconstruction process rightly provoked a wave of anger that flooded onto the streets in several demonstrations against the international community's lack of assistance to the people of Gaza.

Yet to paint the announcement itself as the crisis--implying that the reconstruction process had been working up until now--is misleading, according to many people in Gaza. While $200 million in aid was pledged by donor countries to rebuild the strip shortly after this summer's war, only 5 percent of this money actually reached Gaza, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), though it is unclear exactly where the money has gone. An additional $5.4 billion in aid was further pledged in October at a donors' conference in Cairo, though according to UNRWA's Director in Gaza Robert Turner, "virtually none of [the $5.4 billion] has reached Gaza."

"Right now, we have to dig under a rock to find any information about the aid we're supposed to be getting and where that money actually is," said Omar Shaban, a resident of Gaza and one of the initiators of Aid Watch Palestine. "We hear over and over again that someone new was just hired for $50,000, or that so many people are committed to helping, but then we see no change. It's as if you were to go into a big kitchen, and there were 20 people there trying to cook, and then there was no food."

Frustration regarding this lack of action and information is precisely what inspired Shaban and Nora Lester Murad to start the initiative Aid Watch Palestine (AWP) this summer. In their view, the international aid system needs to be dramatically restructured in order to actually assist the people of Gaza. The two describe AWP as a hybrid of an aid monitoring mechanism, a community engagement effort, an advocacy campaign and a think tank. AWP currently has a Facebook page, a small staff and a network of volunteers, though the initiative has yet to officially launch.

On the eve of the UN's announcement of suspending its UNRWA agency, Sarah Levy spoke with Heba Alhayek, Nora Lester Murad and Omar Shaban of Aid Watch Palestine about their work, the aid situation in Gaza, and their hopes for the future of Palestine, in an interview first published at the Alternative Information Center. Heba is a student of English Literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and the social media and community organizer for AWP in Gaza. Nora and Omar are two of the initiators of AWP, based in Ramallah and in Gaza respectively. Omar is also the director of PalThink for Strategic Studies.

WHAT IS the goal of Aid Watch Palestine?

Nora: The long-term goal is to improve international aid so that it helps Palestinians to claim rights and to further a just and peaceful solution. Seeing as that's a big goal, to start with, we're focusing first of all on Gaza, and second of all on transparency. Transparency is one big step toward accountability because you can't have accountability without transparency.

WHAT ARE you working on now?

Heba: In Gaza we hope to hold meetings and workshops with locals to raise their awareness about the issue. We have also begun to train a group of writers who can collect stories from Gaza that can be shared with the rest of the world. These are stories about people who were affected by the last aggression on Gaza, people who are living without houses or shelters.

Nora: Besides this, our work mainly consists of beginning to collect and compile research to get a better sense of where the aid has come from starting in October 2012, what it was for, where it has gone, and what were the parties it touched before reaching its destination. But the ultimate goal is to transform or liberate international aid so it actually is helpful.

The ruins of Gaza after Israel's onslaught
The ruins of Gaza after Israel's onslaught (Robin Lloyd)

CAN YOU describe the situation today on the ground in Gaza? How different are things today from how they were when Israel stopped its bombing campaign on August 26?

Heba: First, when you're talking about the failed reconstruction process in Gaza, you have to see it as related to everything else. So you have the siege, and you have unemployment, and you have salaries that have not been paid, and then you have the failed reconstruction process. It's all together--there is so much suffering. Today, after this summer's war, people are still living under trees or amongst the ruins of their destroyed or damaged homes.

Omar: There has not been a single big project built since this summer. No homes or schools or hospitals. The reconstruction has effectively been nonexistent. Gaza is in need of 1.5 million tons of cement, and so far only 27,000 tons have been allowed in.

This cement was only allowed for instances of minor damages, for about 17,000 people. On top of this, the people who got this cement were forced to pay with their own money for it [and] told they would be compensated later. Of course this has not happened.

Today there are still 60,000 people living in school buildings and tens of thousands of people living with neighbors or with relatives. In some houses, there are 50 people living there. Students cannot get to school, parents are not working, and many people cannot even afford food. This is a huge social problem. So in some ways, the consequences of the war are more destructive than the war itself. Gaza is on the verge of collapsing.

WHAT ARE your reactions to the recent UN announcement that they have run out of money for aid?

Nora: Personally, I think that the UN announcement is actually a positive thing, in a way. To come out and say that the UN can't go forward, I think that's great. I think that's exactly what's needed--a time out, to say that the UN is not going to keep pretending. The fact that they've been pretending for so long that things are actually getting better is what's problematic--so to at least recognize that right now the way the aid system is set up is making reconstruction impossible and not helping the people of Palestine is important.

WHY DO you think the reconstruction process has been stalled so far?

Nora: I think there are several factors. Of course, the ongoing rift between Fatah and governments in Gaza since the unity deal [in April 2014] is a factor because in order to really rebuild Gaza--and here, we're not just talking about a few houses here and there, but entire neighborhoods--it would take government planning, which at this point is not moving forward.

Then there are Israel's restrictions, which are obviously problematic. The blockade and of course the occupation are huge issues that not only affect the reconstruction but everything else in Gaza.

Personally, though, I would put a majority of the responsibility on the international community because by upholding a façade that things are working when they're not, this is in effect another kind of complicity, to which I think the main antidote is transparency. I think it's the lack of transparency that directly contributes to people continuing to not get the help they deserve.

Omar: In Gaza, we feel that the UN mechanism has replaced the Israeli siege. The UN has taken responsibility from the Palestinian Authority to help the people of Gaza, and now no one is being helped. Meanwhile, the PA is simply hiding behind the UN rather than taking responsibility for its own people. The PA is trying to manage the Gaza crisis from Ramallah, which is no way to get anything done.

And the UN refuses to seriously cooperate with local partners on the ground. The UN serves us without giving us the right to hold them accountable. If you have authority, you have to be responsible. The UN has the authority without the responsibility.

Then you have European countries that do not want to invest again in something that their money rebuilt in 2008, 2009 and 2010. They think, "Why do I need to rebuild something that was rebuilt with my money just a few years ago?"

Heba: This is why we are looking to local society. We think that the people who are affected the most must engage in their own development process because they are the only ones who really know what they need.

I've heard mention of Israel actually benefitting from the aid money being pledged. Can you explain how or why?

Nora: We know that Israel benefits in many ways. One is by including Israeli companies on the list of companies whose products are allowed into Gaza [to help with the reconstruction].

Another way they benefit is by ensuring that anything that does make its way into Gaza is considered an import to Israel. So if you're taking something directly from France to Gaza, it has to be imported to Israel, then taken to Gaza. So that means the fees and the costs of importing to Israel--customs, taxes, fees at the port, transportation fees--Israel benefits from all of this.

If the materials do finally get to Gaza but aren't allowed in on that same day they arrive, then they have to be stored, which means you have to pay money to Israel to store.

And if it does get in or when it does get in, then you have to pay a security fee to have your truck cleared by Israeli security. So there are lots of different ways [that Israel profits from the reconstruction process].

Of course, some of the money also goes back to donor countries. Some donor countries are more efficient, you could say, at recycling money back to themselves. This is mostly through consultancies and sometimes through what's called "tied aid," which is when the recipient is required to purchase from the donor country. The point is that not all of the aid is given with the sole intention of helping the people of Gaza.

The other big problem with the aid donations is that there is no penalty for failing to follow through with a pledge. We should be asking why countries which pledged millions of dollars in aid simply felt it wasn't necessary to actually give it. If the aid and reconstruction process are not accountable to anyone or to any standards of law, ethics or morality, and if they aren't accountable to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the broader Palestinian community in whose name "aid" is being given, then the violations of Palestinian rights and local priorities will be perpetuated. Aid is essentially subsidizing the continued violations of Palestinian rights.

This is why we think that transparency and accountability must be the initial steps in unraveling the current mess that is the international aid system.

IS THERE anything else you would like to say?

Nora: I want to make it clear that while we are working to fix the system of international aid, ultimately, we don't want there to be aid at all. We want a functioning and just economy [in Palestine].

It's not that the aid isn't important. It has a purpose--to assist people at the right time and in the right way. But aid can be abused. When you have a "humanitarian emergency" for over 60 years, you have to ask some hard questions. It could be that aid isn't helping people claim their rights, and it could also be that aid is undermining people's ability to claim their rights.

So even while the humanitarian crisis, such as the lack of housing, is urgent and we want to address this, we don't want to get distracted from the broader context of occupation and ethnic cleansing. So we want to fix the aid system, but we also want to ultimately address the deeper issues that require aid, but also require other kinds of international and political intervention.

If you really want to help people, then you end the blockade, and you end the occupation. You don't just feed people in prison who are unjustly imprisoned; you get them out of prison.

First published at the Alternative Information Center.

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