Early last week, the Israeli Army Spokesperson’s Unit announced “widespread construction” in the Gaza Strip after the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories approved 121 projects funded by international organizations. According to the report, following the approval, the Gaza economy was expected “to be bolstered”.
This is a positive step, but unfortunately there’s nothing new about the news. The projects had already been approved over the course of the last year and in fact, the last time a new project was approved was in early February. Besides, the total value of the approved projects represents only 20% of the budget for projects planned by UNDP and UNRWA alone.
Leaving aside the recurring declarations of approval of the same projects, construction is proceeding at a snail’s pace because Israel operates only a single crossing into the Gaza Strip – Kerem Shalom – through which all goods are transferred, leaving little room for building materials. The average amount of “banned” construction materials (steel, cement and gravel) that Israel allowed into the Gaza Strip each month between October 2010 and February 2011 was 20,000 tons, which is just 7.6% of the average monthly amount (264,000 tons) brought into Gaza before the closure, from January to May 2007.
The Israeli security establishment has admitted (Hebrew) that the shortage of building materials impedes reconstruction in Gaza but claims that it restricts the transfer of these materials because Hamas can use them for military purposes, such as the building of bunkers and tunnels. For this reason, Israel operates a cumbersome bureaucratic system which, among other things, creates painstaking documentation and monitoring requirements for international organizations bringing in goods for their projects, as if we were talking about enriched uranium and not cement to lay the foundation of a school.
But even this cumbersome system doesn’t ensure Israel control over the transfer and use of building materials in the Gaza Strip. According to a UN report, from October 2010 to February 2011, 98,000 tons of steel, cement and gravel were transferred through the tunnels per month without Israeli supervision – five times the amount transferred through the crossings during that same period.
Aside from the ineffectiveness of Israel’s restrictions in preventing Hamas’s access to building materials, this number illustrates just how great the demand for building materials is in the Gaza Strip compared to the limited supply Israel allows in through the crossings. The near-monopoly of the tunnel industry over the import of building materials, created as a result of Israel’s construction materials policy, allows the local government to appear more effective than international organizations in the construction of vital buildings. The local government uses materials from the tunnels, while the regulations of most international organizations prevent them from doing so.
Gaza’s economy has grown 15% in the last year from the place to which it had sunk post-war and during three years of nearly hermetic closure, but the gross domestic product is still 20% less than it was in 2005. According to a report by the International Monetary Fund released ahead of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting this coming Wednesday, one of the measures needed for a meaningful recovery of the economy is the lifting of restrictions on the private sector, including the ban on the transfer of building materials.
It can be assumed that some of the building materials brought in through the tunnels are being put to military use, just as it can be assumed that such use is being made of some civilian infrastructure and other basic products. Yet, Israel does not define electricity, computers or telephones as dual use products and allows them into the Gaza Strip. Is banning building materials for the private sector and preventing construction of vital buildings really necessary, especially considering that construction materials are flowing through the tunnels to whoever is willing to pay the price?