Shejaiya. Khuzaa. Beit Hanoun. The names of these Gaza neighborhoods once conjured images of olive trees and farmland surrounding multi-family homes. But since last summer, they’ve been synonymous with destruction and death.
Situated along the border with Israel, these places bore the brunt of an intensive bombing campaign during Operation Protective Edge, a punishing Israeli army offensive that left over 2,000 dead and more than 11,000 wounded during a seven-week war with Hamas and smaller Gaza militant groups.
A year on, these neighborhoods look much as they did on the day the last bomb fell.
Just a few months ago the remains of more bodies were found in Shejaiya, crushed under several flattened concrete floors.
In Khuzaa some families are living under makeshift tents — pieces of cloth hung between two sticks over a mattress — atop the rubble of their former homes.
Israel was widely criticized for pummeling civilian areas during a war that left four million tons of rubble in Gaza. International donors and world powers pledged to help rebuild the heavily damaged area, citing an urgent humanitarian crisis.
“The people of Gaza do need our help desperately — not tomorrow, not next week, but they need it now,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo last October.
He wasn’t the only one who made promises there. The international community together promised $5.4 billion in aid, well above the $4 billion the Palestinian governing body had asked for.
The $5.4 billion figure was announced to much fanfare and repeated often. But it wasn’t quite what it seemed. Only $3.5 billion of that publicized total was earmarked for Gaza — the rest went to projects in the West Bank and other funds. And of that, only $2.5 billion was new funding. (A billion dollars had already been allocated to projects in the Strip before the war or disbursed already as emergency aid during the conflict.)
Less than $1 billion of that new funding has been disbursed to Gaza since the 2014 war.
Failing to follow through on aid pledges to Gaza is not new, and everyone who made promises — the Gulf countries, the US, the Europeans — have a history of doing it.
Gulf countries and Turkey pledged most of the new money pledged to Gaza last year: around $2 billion. Much of it has yet to be disbursed.
In May, the World Bank said that Saudi Arabia had disbursed only 10 percent of the $500 million it promised. The same report said that Turkey delivered a fraction of the money it pledged, but since then, Turkey has said more of the aid has been disbursed.
The remaining money was pledged by about 50 countries. Norway, the co-host of the conference, has only given 39 percent of its pledge, according to the report.
The reality is that many of the promises made at the conference haven’t been kept. The reasons why have a lot to do with the political and ideological rivalries among those who call themselves friends of Gaza.
No unity, no money
Donor countries cite lack of robust political reconciliation between rivals Fatah and Hamas as a reason why they have not disbursed more of the pledged amount.
“If the Palestinian Authority [the governing body in the West Bank led by the secular political movement, Fatah] had more authority in Gaza, including at the border crossings, you would probably see more foreign assistance for Gaza reconstruction,” a senior US State Department official told GlobalPost.
After three wars in seven years, donors want assurances that the cycle of violence that has plagued the small territory won’t continue. One of those assurances was going to come in the form of a viable Palestinian unity government that would assume control in Gaza, replacing Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which many in the international community view as a terrorist organization. That has not happened.
Why can’t they get along? For one, the two sides have ideological differences: in recent years Hamas have remained committed to violent confrontation with Israel while Fatah has participated in negotiations. The rivalry between the two largest Palestinian political organizations spilled out into violence in 2007, following elections in Gaza a year earlier that saw Hamas emerge victorious.
More recently, there have been signs of a reconcilliation. Hamas and the PA agreed to form a unity government in April 2014. One of the terms of that agreement was that the PA said they would pay the salaries of government employees from the Hamas government, but they’ve since decided not to.
The PA also agreed to take over the crossings between Gaza and Israel from Hamas. Then, it seems, PA President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas got cold feet. Analysts say he is reluctant to take power in Gaza if he can’t guarantee full security control. In other words, he doesn’t want it to be on him if Hamas, or other groups, fire rockets into Israel or even attack PA members.
Meanwhile, Hamas is looking for a face-saving way to share power. “They’re not prepared to relinquish full security control and they want to keep their resistance profile. To surrender weapons to Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not an image they want to project,” says Khaled Elgindy, a fellow with the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “What’s lacking is the political will. … Nothing can happen as long as there’s this political paralysis.”
Donor money would flow more freely if the PA seemed genuinely committed to political reconciliation, analysts say.
But aid workers emphasize that the humanitarian situation won’t wait.
“The entire conference Kerry, Lady Ashton [the EU foreign policy chief] and the Egyptians, they talked about political stability in Gaza and a consensus government. It was one of the conditions,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, spokesman for the UN Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA).“But we are telling them, what happens if Palestinian reconciliation is delayed for ten years? 120,000 people will be homeless all that time.”
An April report by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) pointed out how this can contribute to future conflict, too. “[By] refraining from releasing funds due to fear of political instability in Gaza, donors are entrenching divides that heighten instability.”
A total of 46 aid agencies from around the world backed the findings of the report, which said that only 27 percent of the $3.5 billion promised by donors for rebuilding have been disbursed.
Proxy wars, even here
Like everywhere in the region where external powers intervene, proxy wars between rivals are fought here through assistance channels at the expense of those in need.
Gulf countries, the major donors to Gaza since last year, also cite the lack of political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as a reason why they have not disbursed more money. But at the same time, they contribute to those divisions.
For example, Abbas’s main political rival in Fatah, Mohammed Dahlan, has been working with the UAE and Hamas to secure funding for the territory, further deepening internal Palestinian political divisions by fueling Abbas’s fears that Dahlan is competing with him for political power.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia met with Hamas leadership last month in what was widely seen as a significant thaw in relations. The move surprised Middle East watchers because the kingdom has long been hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, seeing it as not only a political threat but a competing source of Islamic authority in the region.
But these days, the Brotherhood looks positively docile in contrast to more radical forces like the Islamic State. Saudi seems to be seeking more non-extremist Sunni allies in its political cold war with Iran, the rival Shia power in the region with whom the kingdom is vying for control in every regional conflict. Gaza is no exception.
Iranian influence is on the wane in Gaza, and the Islamic Republic is reportedly no longer funding Hamas. But the Saudis are treading a fine line in making any overtures. There is a risk that Saudi could upset the PA in Ramallah by indicating it is taking a side in the Fatah-Hamas dispute.
Despite the large pledges from the Gulf countries, there are still no guarantees that aid will come through. Aid from Gulf countries is also notoriously difficult to track.
“They don’t have real aid agencies for the most part. They don’t have annual reports, they don’t have congressional testimony, they don’t have very sharp media scrutiny,” says Former Ambassador Richard LeBaron, senior fellow at The Atlantic Council.
So why make large pledges that you may not follow through on?
“Part of the reason they do it is they want to demonstrate to their own populations that they still care about the Palestinians,” explains LeBaron.
“Nobody gets fired because aid didn’t go into Gaza. People [in Gaza] just suffer and live with it,” he says.
Not just Israel’s blockade
As Gaza’s Gulf allies are easing the humanitarian situation somewhat, Gaza’s neighbor to the south provides little relief. Egypt’s relationship with Gaza and Hamas is complicated. It hosted the aid conference in Cairo, yet it maintains its own de facto blockade, which has hampered reconstruction efforts.
AIDA suggests in their report that Egypt may be falling short of its obligations under international law to facilitate humanitarian assistance.
Since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government by the military in a popularly backed coup and a crackdown on Brotherhood supporters and other Islamists, Egypt has destroyed most of the hundreds of tunnels that were once Gaza’s lifeline.
“For the most part the leadership in Cairo see punishment in Gaza of Hamas as an extension of an overall harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists [in Egypt], a crackdown which departs from any acceptable security justification and if anything makes the security situation worse,” says Daniel Levy, head of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
In the past the Egyptian government has accused Hamas of assisting militants active in the Sinai desert, which borders Gaza, and of providing logistical support to terrorists in the Delta.
However, there are signs that this stance may be shifting, if slowly. In June Egypt allowed seven trucks full of construction materials to enter the territory, the first time since 2007 that the Egyptians have allowed a commercial shipment to cross its Rafah border. An Egyptian appeals court also overturned a ruling that designated Hamas a terrorist organization.
Many worry that the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), the agreement governing how reconstruction materials move from Israel to Gaza, is just too slow. The process was brokered by the UN to allay Israeli concerns about letting large quantities of dual-use construction materials (meaning, they could also be used for military purposes) into the Strip. Each shipment is checked on both sides of the border as well as at the construction site, a process which requires a huge amount of manpower. Many fear that Gaza will not be rebuilt fast enough to mitigate the suffering and pressure that could lead to another conflict.
The Israeli blockade of Gaza has been described by the UN as “collective punishment” that causes “unacceptable sufferings,” and it remains the No. 1 impediment to reconstruction there.
Approval of the import of materials to rebuild fully destroyed homes only came through last month. Meanwhile, the AIDA report cited a senior UN source as saying, “Even if the GRM works perfectly, the Kerem Shalom [crossing, the only one through which construction materials are brought] is not enough, even if it operates 24/7.”
Even when construction materials are available, Gazans who need them to rebuild their homes often do not have the money to purchase the materials.
In recent months Israel has shown some recognition of the need to ease the pressure on Gaza: they are allowing a little more water and electricity into the Strip, and have made a few repairs to the power plant that Israel’s military bombed multiple times. They authorized a few exports from Gaza to the West Bank for the first time since the blockade was put in place. But these gestures are dwarfed by the scale of the need.
Some analysts say it is more likely that the blockade will be significantly eased before the GRM yields any significant reconstruction progress.
Dealing with reality
Increasingly it seems that the Israelis and others might rather deal with a de facto Hamas government that has proved it can maintain security than a theoretical PA government that shows no sign of coming to fruition soon.
This may be a different Hamas than the world has previously seen. Both leaders and rank-and-file members of the group say that Gazans cannot handle another war. Rumors abound about behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and Hamas to reach a long-term truce.
Donor countries’ insistence on linking aid disbursal to Fatah-Hamas reconciliation — something that may never come to pass — is slowing reconstruction, but a shift in the Israel-Hamas relationship may change that.
But whether aid is delivered to Gaza or not, there is very little accountability for those who promised the funds.
The abysmal situation in Gaza is not only a humanitarian issue. The consequences of a prolonged period of stagnation could lead to a repeat of the bloodshed of one year ago.
“There has been no progress towards a lasting ceasefire agreement and reconstruction efforts have been far too slow to meet needs. There has been no action towards ending the illegal blockade or opening Gaza to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. If we do not change course now to address these core issues the situation in Gaza will only continue to worsen,” warn the writers of the AIDA report.
“Without economic, social and political stability, a return to conflict — and the cycles of damage and donor-funded reconstruction that accompany it — is inevitable.”
Laura Dean is a Global Post correspondent in Cairo.
This Global Post article is the first in a series investigating why billions of dollars pledged by the international community to rebuild Gaza following a devastating war have not been delivered. The reporting was funded by individual backers through Beacon Reader.