Easing of blockade not enough to rebuild Gaza

AP News
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Posted: Oct 08, 2010 4:19 PM
Easing of blockade not enough to rebuild Gaza

Israel's decision to allow some construction material into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip is barely making a dent in alleviating a crushing housing shortage in the impoverished Palestinian territory.

A few dozen stalled international reconstruction projects _ from sewage plants to wells and community centers _ are beginning to move forward four months after Israel eased its Gaza blockade under international pressure.

But one of the most pressing needs in the remains unmet: Economists and aid officials say thousands of homes destroyed in Israeli military offensives cannot be rebuilt because Israel continues to prevent most imports of cement and steel.

Such building materials, Israel argues, could be diverted by Hamas to build military fortifications and short-range rockets of the kind they fired at Israeli border towns by the thousands over the past decade.

Israel says it must mitigate such security risks, though critics contend that argument is weak since the Islamic militant group is able to smuggle in materials for its own use via tunnels from Egypt. Some even argue that Israel aims to prevent a measure of normalcy that might prolong the rule of Islamic militants in the coastal territory.

Israel imposed the tight blockade more than three years ago, after the Hamas militant group _ which was behind most suicide bombings in Israel recent years _ overran Gaza. Neighboring Egypt also closed its border with the territory, although hundreds of smuggling tunnels run underneath.

The blockade was eased in June, after the killing by Israeli troops of nine Turkish activists on a Gaza-bound protest flotilla drew global attention to the punitive harshness of the embargo.

The U.N. says Gaza _ home to 1.5 million people and devastated by years of conflict and isolation _ needs tens of thousands of new apartments, including nearly 6,300 destroyed or badly damaged in the last war, and some 70,000 to accommodate population growth, a backlog that accumulated during the blockade years.

However, only about 60 truckloads of the vital restricted materials _ cement, steel and gravel _ have come in each month for the past three months, compared to 5,000 a month before the blockade, according to the Israeli human rights group Gisha.

"We have been listening to promises since we lost our home during the war," said 30-year-old Linda Ghaben, who shares a tattered tent with her husband and two small children after being displaced by fighting. "But there is no change."

Israel has started permitting the import of a wide range of consumer goods _ which seemed to ease the international pressure _ but continues to ban exports and virtually all travel in and out of the territory.

Limitations also remained on cement, steel and some key raw materials for manufacturing _ restrictions critics say are ineffective because Hamas seems to be getting everything it needs anyway through the smuggling tunnels.

As a compromise, Israel said it would allow international aid agencies to bring in such materials for their long-stalled projects, provided they agree to close supervision.

The international community has welcomed the move but says it's not enough to rebuild Gaza. Despite some economic growth this year, per capita output remains at 60 percent of what it was in 1994 _ when Gaza became autonomous under the Palestinian Authority _ and over a third of the work force is unemployed.

"Our position is that there should be a change in the situation in Gaza, allowing people to have a normal life, and for that a functioning economy is key," said Christian Berger, a senior European Union representative in the region.

Since the easing of the blockade, the Israeli military has approved supplies for more than 70 international aid projects, said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military official. This includes a waste water treatment plant, U.N. schools, kindergartens and community centers.

The two main U.N. agencies in Gaza hope to start on $250 million worth of projects in the coming year.

One, the U.N. Development Program, said it received Israeli approval this week for 21 projects worth $23 million, including for building wells and overpasses, as well as 200 apartments for displaced Gazans near the Khan Younis refugee camp.

"In view of the massive needs of the people of Gaza, these materials are a drop in the ocean," said Roberto Valent, the U.N. agency's local director. "Nevertheless, this is a positive sign."

Another U.N. body, the Relief and Works Agency, says it needs to build thousands of homes, some 100 schools and 12 clinics to make up for the war damage and keep up with population growth.

Spokesman Adnan Abu Hassna said the agency has so far received approval from Israel for eight schools and two clinics. U.N. schools had to turn away 40,000 new students at the start of the new school year for lack of space, he said.

Inbar, the military official, said Israel is working closely with the aid agencies to get supplies into Gaza as quickly as possible, and maintained that delays are also caused by bureaucracy on the other side, including the bidding process.

He said the U.N. had a shortage of schools in Gaza even before the blockade.

The U.N. says Gazans managed to repair about one-third of the war damage using recycled rubble and cement smuggled through the tunnels. However, most of the rubble has already been scooped up, and smuggled cement is often of inferior quality and unsuitable for building the high-rise apartment towers Gaza most urgently needs.

At one of the newly approved projects on the outskirts of the Khan Younis refugee camp, three bulldozers leveled land this week, and there was a sense of progress. "It's been a long time since we worked on such a big site," said Wajih Mahrouz, a 45-year-old bulldozer operator.

However, most contractors remain underemployed. In Gaza City, Mohsen Radwan said he used to put up three or four apartment buildings a year, but now he is struggling to complete one four-story building he began in 2007

He said the restrictions are missing the target.

"Hamas gets its own stuff from the tunnels," he said. "They build mosques and repair their ministries. They are doing fine, but we are losing every day."

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Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.