No construction, no jobs

January 28, 2014. On October 13, the Israeli Ministry of Defense turned off the tap to one of the main driving forces of economic growth in the Gaza Strip: the construction industry. Seventy thousand people made a living in the sector, more than half of them employed directly by it. The construction sector accounted for 27.6% of Gaza’s GDP in the second quarter of 2013. Until June of 2013, the private sector mainly used construction materials purchased via the tunnels from Egypt. Today, given reduced tunnel activity, the sector relies on transfer of materials from Israel.

Over the years, it’s estimated that Gaza has developed a shortage of about 75,000 housing units. The Gaza Housing Ministry estimates that due to population growth, the demand increases by 800-1,100 housing units per year, not counting upwards of 3,000 homes which were destroyed in military operations and have yet to be re-built.

Israel has enforced an almost complete ban on the entrance of construction materials to Gaza for the past three and a half months. The little that enters via Israel today goes to 10 projects managed by UNRWA and UNDP. In the meantime, thousands of people have joined the ranks of the unemployed and the lives of many have ground to a halt – couples cannot get married because of the shortage in new housing units, housing costs are on the rise and construction companies were forced to lay off their employees.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense agreed this week to allow 1,000 tons of cement into Gaza for the repair of damage caused by last month’s big storm. This one-off “humanitarian gesture” will make little more than a small dent in the overall shortage in the Strip.

The Ministry of Defense claims that construction materials Israel sold to Gaza in the past were used to build a tunnel from Gaza into Israel and that the ban is meant to prevent the building of more tunnels. However, they aren’t saying when the ban might be lifted or whether any alternatives that would cause less harm to Gaza’s residents have been considered. Are Gaza residents doomed to live their entire lives without construction materials? If the answer is no, then until when? Does Israel have no other strategy for tackling the challenge posed by the digging of tunnels, one that does not cause substantive harm to the well-being and future of 1.7 million people?