Although billions of dollars have been invested in Gaza over the decades, conditions have only continued to deteriorate, chiefly due to the imposed Israeli and Egyptian blockade. The embargos have also contributed to the radicalization of the Palestinian community and led to an unbearable living situation that is often described as a humanitarian disaster.
The 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in early May only amplified this devastating reality, in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. During the conflict, at least 256 Palestinians were killed.
According to UN data, more than 16,000 homes were damaged or destroyed along with 58 schools and training centers, nine hospitals, 19 clinics, and other vital infrastructure.
The road to recovery in Gaza won’t be quick or easy. The Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas, the democratically elected authority with an international terrorist designation. The US and other foreign donors therefore insist that the internationally accepted Palestinian Authority (PA) should be their primary partner and the public face of the reconstruction. But many observers have expressed concern over using aid as a political and diplomatic tool to legitimize PA leadership and influence in Gaza.
The PA and Hamas fought a civil war in 2007 that eventually led to the ousting of the PA from Gaza, after Hamas was elected to power. The ongoing tension between the two political groups will likely be one of the main obstacles for Gaza’s reconstruction.
The ongoing tension between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will likely be one of the main obstacles for Gaza’s reconstruction.
Indeed, despite efforts to promote the PA and enforce the legitimacy of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, in the eyes of many Palestinians, Hamas represents the last stand against Israeli aggression. Jonathan Kuttab – a leading human rights lawyer in Israel and Palestine and Co-founder of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq – told Inside Arabia that “even those who disagree with Hamas are often moved to support any effort it makes to resist Israeli occupation and the blockade.”
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President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA’s credibility has steadily deteriorated over the years, as they have often been accused of corruption and inefficient management of the West Bank. Abbas’ cancelation of the elections that were supposed to be held in May has further discredited his legitimacy.
A public opinion poll conducted by renowned Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, held immediately after the recent war in Gaza, showed that the majority of Palestinians believe Hamas won the May 2021 confrontation with Israel. The survey also revealed that 53 percent of Palestinian participants believe Hamas must represent and lead the Palestinian people. On the contrary, only 14 percent opted for Abbas’ Fatah party.
In Kuttab’s view, no foreign-backed reconstruction plans can take place without at least minimal contact with Hamas. In a similar vein, Marco Sassòli – a Professor of International Law at the University of Geneva and Special Advisor on international humanitarian law (IHL) to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court – believes that while Gaza can be reconstructed without materially aiding Hamas, it is impossible to rebuild the Strip without collaborating and coordinating with the political group.
Whether Hamas is labeled as terrorist or not is irrelevant, due to the fact that it controls the Gaza Strip and therefore decides what can be done there, Sassòli explained. Furthermore, he noted, by establishing necessary oversight measures, foreign donors could prevent Hamas from using reconstruction aid for military purposes, although such monitoring never provides a total guarantee that funds will be allocated properly.
Nonetheless, it is evident that it will be very hard, if not impossible, to carry on with reconstruction efforts in Gaza through the existing patterns and methods, which have proven to be inefficient.
After the 2014 Gaza war, the UN, Israel, and the PA established the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) which was meant to allow for a rebuilding of Gaza without directly working with Hamas. However, the mechanism proved to be ineffective and slow, as it included layers of bureaucracy, thereby delaying and increasing the cost of reconstruction. Although the GRM designates the United Nations as taking the main role in the reconstruction process, it has failed to include the Gaza governing bodies or civil society organizations. Moreover, it allows Israel to use its veto power through a case-by-case approval of the entry of construction materials in Gaza, including pipes, machinery such as generators, and even cement.
The strict monitoring emanates from Israeli fears that some materials – for example, pipes – may have a “dual-use” for building tunnels or be used for other military purposes. But the most bizarre and outrageous outcome of the GRM, according to experts, is the fact that at least 65 percent of all materials have been purchased from Israeli companies, meaning that Israel has actually greatly benefited from its destruction of Gaza.
Oxfam has reported that under the current circumstances, it would take more than a century for Gaza to be fully restored.
Hence, the strategy for reconstructing Gaza must be urgently transformed and accelerated. The charitable organization Oxfam has reported that under the current circumstances, it would take more than a century for Gaza to be fully restored, chiefly due to the blockade and import limitations. In other words, the radicalization of Palestinians and local support of radical groups will only continue.
Greg Shapland, an independent researcher and writer on Israeli-Palestinian relations and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Center, explained to Inside Arabia that various ideas have been floated to replace the “suitcases full of dollars,” which so far Qatar has supplied to mitigate the severe difficulties of daily life in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has proposed a voucher system while other ideas have included channeling funds through official bodies in Gaza that report to the PA in Ramallah, rather than to Hamas. But in Shapland’s opinion, Hamas will see such mechanisms as an attempt to circumscribe its control of Gaza, and will try to find ways of disrupting them, or simply taking them over. After all, Hamas is the authority on the ground and will do all it can to ensure it stays that way.
More importantly, without lifting the blockade of Gaza, which is the root cause of much of the violence and radicalization, any reconstruction attempts will remain unsuccessful.
However, while the international community should take measures to end the blockade and eliminate the principal causes of tensions in Gaza, Sassoli noted that this should not be used as a reason to give up on reconstructing Gaza. This is because, in his view, reconstruction would actually contribute to mitigating the greatest source of discontent in the enclave.
Israel has an obligation to let humanitarian assistance pass into the Gaza Strip.
Regardless of the blockade, Israel has an obligation to let humanitarian assistance pass into the Gaza Strip—even if it may require proof that such assistance only benefits the civilian population. Humanitarian aid is also considered to include materials necessary to reconstruct housing, such as pipes and relevant machinery. However, Sassoli told Inside Arabia that, “as long as Gaza is controlled by an enemy entity and missiles are sent from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, the latter has no obligation to re-establish normal trade relations with the Gaza Strip.”
Lifting the blockade is therefore not a straightforward business, and as Shapland explains, it will require the establishment of a degree of trust between Hamas and the Israeli government, which clearly does not exist. According to him, this will take time and a calming of tensions, and will probably require the concerted involvement of Egypt as a mediator.
While it is not likely that the new fragile coalition government in Israel will make much difference regarding Gaza, Shapland assumes that Bennet will try to avoid another major operation against Hamas for the time being. Still, he anticipates that the most likely scenario for the next several months, and perhaps years, will be a continuation of minor clashes (e.g., incendiary balloons followed by limited Israeli airstrikes against Hamas targets) followed by another outbreak of serious conflict, such as the one in May.
“If this is the case, then there will be very little reconstruction, and aid will be confined to essential humanitarian needs,” Shapland further told Inside Arabia. This dismal prediction could be prevented, he added, if outside mediation succeeds in bringing about an extended period of calm. But unfortunately, if past incidents serve as a reference, the latest war in Gaza will be forgotten in the next few months, and the vicious cycle of violence will likely continue.