By Omar Karmi, The National Newspaper, Aug. 31, 2009
Photo: Many structures in Gaza, such as the parliament building, are still in rubble. Alexei Kidel for The National
JERUSALEM - It has been six months since the international community pledged nearly US$5 billion (Dh18bn) in aid to the Palestinian people, chiefly for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s devastating offensive there this year.
None of this aid has reached Gaza and no reconstruction has started.
Although Israel is slowly easing its restrictions on the flow of basic humanitarian goods to Gaza, including food and medicine, construction materials remain prohibited from entering, institutions and homes still lie in rubble, and critically needed projects to repair and upgrade Gaza’s power plant and tottering sewage network lie dormant.
The situation is frustrating to development agencies and experts. Two weeks ago, the UN was forced to issue another emergency appeal for funds for Gazans. The UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and education to Palestinian refugees, decried the condition of Gaza’s refugees as “shameful”. Numbering one million, refugees make up about 70 per cent of the total population in Gaza; and UNRWA asked for $181 million to help it through the rest of the year in a special Ramadan appeal.
Of the billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction by the international community, UNRWA noted in a press release on August 17, “not one penny” has reached Gaza, and reconstruction has proven to be a “mirage”. The humanitarian situation in Gaza, according to the UN, “remains precarious”.
That such serious humanitarian disasters as a cholera epidemic did not emerge in Gaza, said William Corcoran, the president of the American Near East Refugee Aid agency, (Anera) is partly down to “dumb luck”.
“We expected more serious health scares but thankfully they haven’t occurred,” Mr Corcoran said in an interview last week. “This is partly because sewage pipes have not yet burst into the streets. But they are at the stage where that can happen at any moment.”
In Gaza, Anera is a partner to USAID, the official US aid agency, and is supposed to repair and upgrade most of Gaza’s aged and faulty sewage system. That project – like all the projects, including construction of a seaport and the reopening of the airport, agreed to in the US-brokered 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access – has yet to get off the ground.
Mr Corcoran was keen to highlight the projects Anera has been able to implement in Gaza, including food and medicine deliveries, a programme to provide fresh milk to Gazan preschoolers and the reconstruction of 18 preschools using materials recycled from the destruction wrought in the Gaza war, but he admitted to frustration at the kind of projects Anera is now pursuing.
In the West Bank, he said, Anera helped establish four IT institutes affiliated to four different universities. In Gaza, while plans have been laid for a similar project, Anera’s newest project involved buying shoes for children. “We are forced to lower our expectations for what we can do.”
At heart, the problem is political. The expertise is there, whether with such agencies as the UN and Anera, or with local NGOs affiliated to those international bodies. The money has been pledged even if it has yet to be delivered. The statement from UNRWA noted that, pledges apart, the largest Arab donation to date had been a $34m contribution from the emir of Kuwait.
But what Mr Corcoran calls the “political stalemate” – whether in international efforts to pressure Israel to lift its siege on Gaza, which has been in place for more than two years, or in Palestinian reconciliation efforts – has stymied efforts to begin reconstruction in Gaza.
The latter is crucial in establishing a mechanism for distributing aid to Gaza. International sanctions on official contacts with Hamas tie the hands of agencies dealing with Gaza authorities. International funding, under the current proscriptions, cannot end up in the hands of Hamas, and even a clear commitment by Hamas, offered repeatedly over the past months, will not dissuade the international community from this stance.
The result is that international aid efforts are being channelled through the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. As emphasised yesterday by Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Mr Abbas, in a press conference in Ramallah, there will be no reconstruction of the Gaza Strip until there is a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas.
Even then, however, the international community must still pressure Israel to lift the siege, aid organisations said. The destruction of the war in January aside, the greatest damage has been done not by bombs but by isolation. Unable to rebuild or improve, two years of sanctions have undermined the economy and infrastructure. According to a July survey by the Palestine Trade Centre, 95 per cent of industries in Gaza have had to shut as a result of sanctions and 120,000 private sector employees have been laid off.