Gaza, a story of international failure
PARIS - The only similarity between Cannes on the French Riviera and Gaza was the red carpet unfolded to welcome the participants to a film festival. But unlike Cannes’ 68th movie event, Gaza’s first film festival was not a glitzy affair nor was it intended to be.
For one thing, the red carpet snaked amid destroyed houses in Shujaiya, one of the hardest hit areas of the Gaza Strip during last summer’s Israel’s war on Hamas. For three days during the festival, Gazans watched movies on human rights while sitting amid the rubble of their neighbourhood.
The theme of the Karama (“Dignity” in Arabic) Film Festival could not have been more appropriate, for many Palestinians in Gaza lack the most basic human rights, including shelter, food security and jobs.
Nearly nine months after the end of a 50-day war, which killed 2,200 Palestinians — mostly civilians — wounded 11,000 others and led to extensive destruction of residential areas, hospitals, schools and infrastructure, Gaza and its population of 1.8 million seem to elicit little international interest.
Despite pledges at a conference in Cairo last October of $3.5 billion aid to Gaza, the pace of reconstruction in the coastal enclave has been extremely slow. At this pace, it will take 100 years to fix what has been destroyed, international aid agencies warned.
According to engineers from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), 137,681 houses were damaged or destroyed by Israeli bombardment last summer. Not one of the 9,161 destroyed houses has been rebuilt. UNRWA has only received funding to rebuild 200 houses but more paper work and clearances are still needed.
The situation is somehow easier for refugees whose houses sustained minor damage. Some 60,000 families — almost half of the caseload in that group — were able to complete repairs of their homes with UN help.
Inhabitants of the hardest hit areas of Shujaiya or Beit Hanoun live in particularly harsh conditions.
Nearly 100,000 people in Gaza are homeless. Many families sleep amid rubble or in makeshift tents on the site of their destroyed homes. This winter, a number of children died of the cold.
Many live in schools turned into collective shelters while more than 11,500 families are renting houses with UN subsidies, which might stop due to a lack of funding.
To cope with this dire situation, UNRWA launched an Emergency Shelter Programme for which $720 million is required. So far $216 million has been pledged — the latest donation of $41 million was made by Germany on May 13th — leaving a shortfall of more than half a billion dollars, said Chris Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman.
The slow pace of reconstruction has many causes.
First, there is a lack of available funds. By May 15th according to World Bank figures, only 27.5% of promised funds for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip had been disbursed. The remainder might never arrive, as was the case with previous pledges. Also, with no permanent ceasefire in view, some donors are reluctant to finance what might be destroyed in the next war. The paradox, of course, is that economic instability might fuel the next conflict.
Another reason is the 8-year-old blockade enforced by Israel on Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007. By severely restricting the circulation of people and goods, the blockade crushed the economy of the Gaza Strip and its capacity to create jobs. Today, the blockade is slowing considerably a UN-brokered agreement on reconstruction between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israelis say they want to make sure that concrete and steel entering the Gaza Strip won’t be used by Hamas to rebuild tunnels and rocket launchers. Gazans waiting for the OK to buy building materials for their destroyed homes are closely monitored.
As for the Rafah crossing with Egypt — the only link for Gazans with the outside world — it has been permanently closed, except for 12 days, since October 2014.
Reconstruction is also being hampered by disagreements within Hamas, which is ruling Gaza, and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to have a say in line with the reconstruction agreement.
Most worrying is the high unemployment rate among the Gaza inhabitants. According to UN figures, the unemployment rate for Palestinian refugees in 2014 was 44.1% and for the general population it stood at 43.9%. This has dramatic consequences. The number of Palestinian refugees relying on UNRWA for food aid has increased from fewer than 80,000 in 2000 to almost 868,000. So few jobs are available that when UNRWA advertised for 200 additional teachers for the coming school year it received more than 27,000 applicants.
In the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the rise of extremism in the Middle East, the future of Gazans trapped in their open-air prison appears bleak.
Gunness pointed to the failure of the international community to address the underlying causes of the situation in Gaza.
“It is clear that the time of the humanitarian action alone has passed. We can continue and will continue to provide the basic humanitarian needs of the Palestinians,” Gunness told The Arab Weekly. “But we need a political and concerted action so that our efforts will be exponentially developed.”
Present policies are leading to a “de-development” of Gaza, experts say and the UN has warned it may become uninhabitable by 2020.