Workers rebuild a Palestinian house that was destroyed in last year’s 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 8, 2015. Palestinian and UN officials say nearly 130,000 houses were either destroyed or damaged during the war
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington to try to repair tattered ties with President Barack Obama and defend Israeli policies, officials from US and international aid organizations say they are facing new Israeli restrictions undercutting their efforts to help Palestinians, especially Gazans trying to recover from a 50-day war in 2014.
Officials from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) told Al-Monitor that a new regulation limiting the thickness of wood planks imported into Gaza is of particular concern. Rules put in place this summer allow lumber of only a centimeter (two-fifths of an inch) thick, said Matthew McGarry, the CRS country representative for Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, compared with four centimeters just a few month ago. The thinner wood, he said, is not suitable for constructing even temporary housing.
Israeli officials say that the rule was prompted by evidence that Hamas, the militant Islamic group that governs Gaza, was using the wood to build tunnels for smuggling arms and potentially fighters into Israel.
“It is preposterous to think that a state would itself supply construction materials to a terror organization that vows its own destruction,” said a statement from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which oversees donations and other access by international organizations to the West Bank and Gaza.
The statement, which was emailed to Al-Monitor, added, “In light of this, materials that could be used for terror purposes and dual-use materials are examined and processed in accordance with Israel’s security protocols. As such, the entry of certain types of wood is prohibited as it has been confirmed that they are used by Hamas to build terror tunnels.”
Israeli officials have long made it difficult for Gazans to import so-called ABC’s — aggregate, building materials and cement — because they can be used both for civilian construction and for Hamas tunnels.
A senior official at a US-based charity, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said that bureaucratic obstacles to other forms of aid are also mounting.
“The process of importation of materials has slowed down” and affects not just goods needed for reconstruction but “medicine and even children’s clothing,” the official said.
The difficulties, he said, predate the latest spate of Arab-Jewish violence and could jeopardize donor support at a time when the situation in the territories is increasingly fragile and tense. The official added that the increase in red tape could reflect the presence of more Jewish settlers on the staff of COGAT since the last Israeli election in March, which resulted in a narrow right-wing government.
“This is now affecting just about everything,” the aid official said. Goods that used to take two or three weeks to deliver now take two or three months, he added.
COGAT told Al-Monitor it was “not aware of any delay of medicine or children’s clothing” but could not confirm this without details of specific deliveries. The statement said that since the beginning of this year, “over 2 million tons of goods including medical supplies, electrical devices, clothing, fuels and gas have entered Gaza.”
In addition, the agency said, “over 2.3 million tons of construction materials have entered Gaza, over 99,000 homes are in different stages of repair, 225 international projects are underway, and in total, 2,500 homes have been built.”
The Israeli figures are much higher than those provided by aid agencies, which assert that the housing situation in Gaza remains critical.
According to UNRWA, the 2014 war damaged nearly 140,000 homes and totally destroyed more than 9,000. So far, the agency has been able to repair about half the partially damaged homes, Bo Schack, the new director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, told Al-Monitor. He added, however, that “we have only managed to see one completed house” among those that were demolished.
The Zaza family of 12 moved into that house just last month.
To compensate for the delay in replacing destroyed houses, CRS has built about 375 temporary shelters, McGarry said, with 75 more in the pipeline. The structures, which use compacted rubble for foundations and corrugated iron for roofs, can house up to 11 people and are a big improvement on trailers provided immediately after the last conflict, which were freezing in winter and boiling in summer, he said. But the aid group has “really dialed back construction” and stopped asking for donor money because of the new restrictions on wood, he said.
McGarry said this made no sense since more cement is now coming into Gaza. “The ones affected are those like us who try to play by the rules and only buy through legitimate channels for relief purposes,” he said. “Someone who wants it [wood] for less upright purposes can still get their hands on it.”
The other aid official said some of his organization’s donors “are getting tired of working in Palestinian areas” because it is “too much of a hassle” to get all sorts of items into Gaza and the West Bank.
Relief groups are also having trouble getting Israeli permission to move local staff to Jerusalem or abroad for meetings and training. Requests are ignored or delayed so long that they are no longer relevant, aid representatives said.
McGarry said there is currently a “blanket prohibition” on anyone with an East Jerusalem identification card going to Gaza. This makes life difficult for CRS because many of its senior staff in finance and operations are East Jerusalemites, he said.
“It’s a never-ending crapshoot whether you are able to move people form Gaza to East Jerusalem for training,” he said. “It gets even more complicated if it’s to Jordan for training or Dubai for a workshop. It’s increasingly difficult for Gazans to go anywhere. They are feeling increasingly hemmed in and trapped.”
The future of Gaza — with 1.8 million people squeezed into an area of only 140 square miles — was already bleak before the latest violence. A recent UN report predicted that the coastal strip would become essentially unlivable by 2020.
UNRWA, which was created after the 1948 war and meant to be a temporary organization, is currently feeding about half of Gaza’s population and is chronically short of funds. Unemployment in Gaza — 43% — is the highest in the world, according to the World Bank, and youth unemployment is more than 60%.
In such circumstances, it would seem counterproductive for Israel to erect more barriers to reconstruction and development.
“Everything’s pretty precarious now,” McGarry said. Referring to the recent outbreak of stabbing attacks and other violence between Arabs and Jews, he added, “this could be our new normal or things could get a lot worse.”
(Source / 09.11.2015)