Gaza: Destructive Reconstruction

von Stefanie Felsberger*

Shuja’iyeh, an area close to the border zone between Gaza and Israel, which was destroyed during Protective Edge. ©Mark McGuinness

"Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told a summit in Egypt that cash was ´insufficient´ without a 
politicial solution. Israel, which has been fighting Gaza militants, refuses to allow building materials into Gaza for reconstruction. [...] Hamas [...] was not invited to attend the one-day conference. [...] All but essential supplies are still subject to Israeli blockades at the crossing points into Gaza. Building and raw materials deemed by Israel to be useful to militants as well civilians have been banned." BBC News

This statement seemingly many of the reasons why Gaza has been forced to remain in a state of destruction and devastation since Operation Protective Edge which took place in summer 2014. In reality, the above was written in 2009, after Operation Cast Lead. Sadly, I could have started this text with a similar quote from 2006, 2011, or 2014. In all of these years Israel launched devastating operations against Gaza and its people, leaving death and destruction.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Operation Protective Edge left 1,914 killed and 9,861 injured Palestinians in its wake, among them 549 dead and almost 3,000 injured children. Israel bombed Gaza’s largest food factories, bulldozed cultivated land, and destroyed more than 250 economic facilities, turning the Strip into a completely dependent market. Additionally, Gaza’s power plant stopped due to the destruction of 300,000 litres of industrial fuel, rendering the supply of water and electricity almost impossible. Also large numbers of Gaza’s administrational and governmental institutions, religious endowments and mosques were destroyed. With reconstruction focused on restoring the 8,800 fully and 7,900 partly destroyed buildings, leaving about 475,000 people homeless, rebuilding infrastructure and the economy remains a low priority. The almost biannual military operations have wrecked so much havoc on Gaza, that Oxfam stated it would take “more than a 100 years” to meet all of Gaza’s needs if reconstruction proceeds at the current pace. 

After each war it becomes harder to rebuild, as most of the damage from previous wars remains in place. Subsequent reconstruction efforts have divided Palestinians, rendered Palestinians utterly reliant on external actors, depoliticized their claims, and made their own institutions complicit in the occupation – these developments have become institutionalized with the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Why does it seem impossible to break this cyclical destruction and reconstruction, manifested in almost biannual Israeli atrocities in Gaza and subsequent international assistance? This is precisely what I explore in this article: by looking at the destructive aspects of reconstruction attempts in Gaza, I demonstrate how they are part of much deeper, structural problems in international aid and emblematic of the overall approach of international actors to the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. To do so, I highlight several manifestations of these structural problems surrounding the Oslo Accords and its subsequent arrangements: the fragmentation of Palestinians, the increasing dependence of Palestinians on Israel, the externalisation of the cost of the occupation, alleviating Israel, and, finally, the depoliticised approach to the Palestinian struggle. The cumulative effect of these manifestations has made reconstruction efforts and international assistance – intentionally or not – facilitator of the Israeli occupation.

There were four houses here. Now there's a hole and one less member of their family.” ©Mark McGuinness


The Oslo peace process was initially celebrated as the beginning of Palestinian statehood. Instead it became “an interminable process, without peace and without end.” Oslo allowed Israel to further the construction of settlements while pretending to negotiate a settlement. It shifted Palestinian debates from liberation to state-building, and, most devastatingly, Oslo shattered the unifying claim of a return to historic Palestine by reducing this claim to a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, silencing the rightful claims of Palestinian refugees and Palestinians living inside Israel for justice. Instead of unifying Palestinians within one state, Oslo divided them. Israel drove a barrier between Palestinians under jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestinians living in Israel, in the surrounding countries or the Diaspora, but it also actively separated Palestinians in the West Bank from Gazans, Jerusalemites and other Palestinians, as well as reinforced divisions between the PA and other Palestinian organisations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and leftist groups. It did so by establishing a separation wall around the West Bank, a wall around Gaza, and a ring of settlements around Palestinian enclaves in Jerusalem and, helped by the international community, it undermined Palestinian efforts at unification and reconciliation.

Israel, in short, regards Palestinian unity, and specifically the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, as a threat. Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israeli sanctions, international boycotts and the threat to cut Western funding have served to further deepen division between Hamas and Fatah. After they signed a reconciliation agreement in April 2014, Israel increased its efforts to divide Palestinians. International actors tacitly supported reconciliation, only to undermine it with reconstruction plans: Operation Protective Edge ended with the promise to ease the siege, but also the condition of having to allow Fatah back into Gaza in order to turn it into the receiving party of international reconstruction money (international donors are prevented from transferring money to Hamas due to its status as terrorist organisation).

But the situation for Gazans has not improved an inch: electricity is still out, the border to Egypt is closed, Israel still blocks the import of construction materials, salaries remain unpaid, and relations between Fatah and Hamas are hostile with both parties blaming each other for the reconstruction failure. Even worse, Hamas’ status as a terrorist organization causes international – more specifically Western – donors to reject dealing with Hamas until they agree to nonviolence, accept previous agreements, and recognise Israel. Since 2006 these principles served as a tool to further divide Fatah and Hamas, as well as to undermine the latter. After Operation Protective Edge, this implicit division and exclusion of Hamas intensified, shutting Hamas out of reconstruction efforts, even though Protective Edge renewed its legitimacy. Also other Gaza-based representatives were excluded, despite their requisite knowledge of what Gaza needs. Then again this is nothing new, already in 2009 the official plan for reconstructing Gaza was published first in English and only months later in Arabic, proving that the needs of donors matter more than Gaza’s. These dividing factors not only add to the plight of Palestinians, they also increase their dependence on Israel and external actors.
Picture of the Apartheid Wall taken in Bethlehem in 2014

Creating Economic Dependence


"The Palestinian economy remains captive to the Israeli market."    
                                                             Sansour and Tartir

In the past, stateless Palestinian organisations had been dependent on their host countries, their funders and groups in international solidarity, but the dependence of Palestinians created by Oslo is qualitatively different, as they were now directly dependent on their occupier and the US, Israel’s biggest ally.

The PA’s economic dependence on – or integration into – Israeli economy was laid down in the Paris Protocol, which obligates the PA to implement the Israeli trade and tariff policy without being able to influence it. It regulates trade policy, taxation and stipulated that foreign aid had to go through Israel. Furthermore, Israel is in charge of Palestinian water resources, energy supplies, air space, and external borders. It confiscated large areas of land for the construction of settlements and gave settlers control over 87% of the irrigated land in the entire West Bank. Furthermore, the agreement rendered the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) thoroughly dependent on imported goods (70 to 80 per cent of GDP), paid for by either indirect taxes – collected by Israel and then transferred to the PA – or external aid.

In light of this dependence on Israeli goodwill, the ability to engage in economic activities came with the price of surrendering to the occupation says Ismail Hanieh. He further delineates how the economic set-up under Oslo succeeded in aligning the interests of the Palestinian business elite, the PA bureaucracy and parts of the PLO with those of the occupation. Hanieh states,

"The two-state strategy embodied in Oslo has produced a social class that draws significant benefits from its position atop the negotiation process and its linkages with the structures of occupation. This is the ultimate reason for the PA’s supine political stance."

This process further divided Palestinian society, not only along regional lines but also along class differences. When it comes to the Palestinians’ dependence on external aid, the OPT have become the highest per capita recipients of aid worldwide. Without foreign assistance they would not be able to sustain the extensive public sector, which employs about a quarter of the workforce.

This development has been especially drastic in the field of agriculture where sustainable independent agriculture is gradually replaced by service industry, exemplified by John Kerry’s Palestine Economic Initiative (PEI), which envisions special economic zones (SEZs) in order to create industrial parks. To make space for the industrial parks, the PA removes farmers from their land by buying the land at enforced low prices or simply confiscating it – an absurd situation in which Palestinians are displaced not only by Israel but also their own representatives. The farmers are mostly supposed to work in the industrial parks, turning them from productive self-sustaining farmers into labourers. Especially, in the Jordan Valley, the most fertile part of the West Bank over which Israel wants permanent control, farmers fear the envisioned industrial park will become a packaging facility for the produce coming from the agribusiness of the settlements. The zones rely on Israel for transfer, movement, and access of tax revenues and threaten to put Palestinian companies out of business. They produce nothing, while the OPT are in turn forced to buy more agricultural products from Israeli settlements. The initiative brings benefits for Israeli companies, especially in illegal settlements, but makes Palestinians more dependent on Israel, as the zones depend on Israel for transfer, movement and access of tax revenues and threatens to put Palestinian companies out of business. The PEI thus benefits Israeli companies, especially in illegal settlements, but undermines Palestinian aspirations for independence and sovereignty, as it erodes their ties to the land, one of their few remaining sources of power and autonomy. Sansour and Tartir argue,

"In the context of a brutal military occupation whose primary aim is to colonise the land and appropriate the resources that are integral to the growth that this model guarantees, the PEI not only makes no sense, it undercuts the very foundations of Palestinian survival and resistance."

Profits will go to the business elite close to the PA and Israeli settlers. This way the PEI ensures the complicity of large sections of the Palestinian economic elite as their financial success becomes ever more dependent on Israeli good will and cooperation.

A much more complete dependence has been created in Gaza by Israel and through reconstruction efforts. While the West Bank is becoming economically more dependent on Israel, Gaza has already been entirely reliant on Israel. Sara Roy argues that, 

decades of “expropriation and deinstitutionalization had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development.”

In addition during the almost biannual military operations in Gaza Israel destroys the barely existing infrastructure, only increasing Gaza’s dependence. Gaza depends on Israel for food, electricity, water, construction material, medicine and every thing else. This is the biggest obstacle for reconstruction: import of any of the necessary goods is prevented by the illegally imposed Israeli siege of Gaza, worsened now by the closure of Rafah and the destruction of tunnels into Sinai. Reconstruction efforts only focus on rebuilding houses – arguably the most dire and urgent need – but in doing so, the allocation of funds helps Gazans survive but ignores the deeper problem at hand: dependence on Israeli benevolence. Worse, Israel even stands to profit financially from the reconstruction, as it is free to tax the money pledged to rebuild Gaza and by forcing the international community and Palestinians to buy cement from Israeli companies.

To conclude, international efforts to rebuild and develop Palestine create more dependency on Israel and make Palestinians reliant on money flowing in from the outside to sustain this current model. The PA therefore puts the needs of the international community ahead of its own people. With the international community to closely involved, it carries much of the cost for reconstructing Gaza, aid eventually pays part of the cost of the occupation – an issue I will explore in the third article of this series.
This community centre was built and destroyed with funding from the American people.©Mark McGuinness

Funding the occupation

"[I]nternational aid has rendered the occupation cost-free. It has even enriched Israel's economy."

The cost of and the responsibility for occupying the Palestinian territories is increasingly carried by other actors than Israel. The beginning of this development is the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in 1949 with the purpose of providing emergency response to the Palestinians displaced during the war surrounding the foundation of Israel. With the signing of the Oslo Accords this logic was further extended to incorporate the PA itself and today even the politics of reconstructing and rebuilding Gaza are subject to it.

The Oslo Accords were supposed to be the beginning of an independent Palestinian state. A semi-autonomous Palestinian authority, intended to become a full-fledged state, replaced the Israeli occupation in (parts of) the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Instead this interim setup became permanent, with the PA standing between the vision of achieving independence and the reality of cooperating with Israel. For Israel, Oslo symbolized the possibility to portray itself as generous partner in negotiations, granting Palestinians self-administration, to benefit from the loosened boycotts from Arab neighbours, all the while Israel managed to consolidate and deepen its control of Palestinian lives by ‘subcontracting’ the occupation to the PA. This is most clearly visible in the way Palestinian armed resistance forces – created under Oslo out of the existing armed groups and envisioned to protect Palestinians (as they did during the second Intifada) – have become security forces focused on policing and eradicating internal resistance against the occupation

The 2003 road map is a turning point in this development: bowing to EU and US pressure for security sector reform, the PA agreed to actively arrest Palestinians engaged in armed resistance against Israel. With the help of European and American security consultants Mahmoud Abbas profoundly reconstructed security forces in terms of training, security doctrine and deepened cooperation with Israel. Security forces focused on counter-terrorism and policing, but no training prepared them to fight off external threats or invasions.

Regarded as collaborating with Israel and enforcing the occupation by many Palestinians, Abbas referred to security cooperation with Israel as “sacred.” This statement, as contradictory it might seem, makes sense from Abbas’ perspective. Security forces have become essential for the PA, nowadays “a lucrative industry and a comfortable hub for the political-economic elite […], increasingly detached from the circumstances of the population” to protect their interests, safety and wealth (Dana 2014). PA security forces have tortured prisoners, arrested protestors, activists, and journalists, and assisted the Israeli military in arrests  – all funded and supervised by Europe and America.

With more than a quarter of the PA budget allocated to security and with about 45% of its employees in the security sector, the PA depends on the US and the EU funds to continue the program. In 2013 the US provided $70 million specifically for this end and the EU directly funded the authority with $227 million and further $406 million for economic and security related purposes. This money directly subsidizes the PA’s continued security cooperation and the oppression of their own people and it also directly reduces the price Israel should have to pay for its continued illegal occupation.
©Mark McGuinness

The same happens with money raised for the reconstruction of Gaza: external actors carry the cost of reconstruction, while Israel profits, and Palestinians become more dependent. Take for example the way the UN has become part of a system of control and information gathering in Gaza. To control the import of bricks, cement and steel reinforcing – dubbed as “dual-use” materials because they can also be used to build tunnels instead of houses – Israel has managed to persuade the UN to set up a broad system of oversight where every item of dual-use material will be monitored all the way from the factory to the building it is intended for. To this end a database of suppliers – few factories are chosen and most are Israeli – and consumers – information about the damage done to a building, ID numbers of the family living there, GPS coordinates and further personal information – is planned. But for materials to reach either a family rebuilding their house or the PA an official building, Israel needs to give its approval. The UN would be heavily involved in monitoring and inspecting the entire process and provide all the gathered information to the PA, which in turn shares it with Israel.

In the end, Palestinians are under more surveillance and control than ever, with the UN as integral enabling part of the occupation. An attendee at the presentation of this envisioned system of oversight and reconstruction, referred to it as, “the next stage of Israel’s blockade of Gaza […] now, the international actors are being embedded and made complicit in the siege.” In its attempt to ‘help’ Palestinians, the UN is willing to accommodate Israeli demands to such an extent that is becoming part of the occupation’s infrastructure, rendering it ‘better’ and easier for Israel to sustain. Israel also stands to profit directly from this way of doing reconstruction: Palestinians are forced to buy most cement from Israeli companies, such as Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises, which is itself making profits from the construction of illegal settlements and the Separation wall in the West Bank. Israel also profits indirectly by taxing the money intended for reconstruction.
Spotted at a supermarket in Gaza where residents sell UNRWA donations to buy other more urgent necessities. ©Mark McGuinness

With the international community paying for reconstruction, while allowing Israel to benefit financially and entrench its control and surveillance of the lives of Palestinians, the failure to hold Israel accountable for its actions renders the international community complicit in the injustice inflicted upon Palestinians. In order to avoid this absurdity, it is high time to hold Israel accountable for its actions, otherwise the circle of destruction and reconstruction will continue with international funds paying for the damages and Israel receiving up to one third of all funds raised for reconstruction and aid. Donors and the international community are well aware of this problem: the UN Conference on Trade and Development found that 45 cents for every dollar produced in the OPT, flow back to Israel. In the final article of this series I will examine the international community’s wider approach to Palestine: I analyse how the international community imposes its model of development on Palestinians, an approach skirting the political aspect of the Israeli occupation at the heart of the Palestinian struggle.

Depoliticizing the Palestinian struggle 


"Gaza is not a natural disaster. It is man-made, the result of deliberate political choices."

Ignoring the underlying structural political inequalities is generally one of the fundamental flaws in development aid. In the case of Palestine, the international community spends billions of dollars on state building, institution building and economic development in the hope, as Wildeman and Tartir argue, that Palestinians’ economic wellbeing will make them more likely to accept painful compromises during negotiations. Best example are the aforementioned Special Economic Zones, which are supposed to boost the economy but ultimately cannot do so because their success depends on the cooperation of the occupier who is not interested in flourishing Palestinian businesses. This approach favours economic olutions for political problems.

Without addressing the occupation as one of the reason behind most economic, social and developmental problems of Palestinians, every attempt to impact Palestinian lives for the better is doomed from the onset. To address Palestinian grievances is to address the injustice inflicted on them by Israel. Ignoring the political aspect will again and again lead to situations in which Israel destroys what has been build with aid money. Sara Roy aptly summarizes this situation where,

"the most important factor in Palestine’s economic decline is not reduced aid levels but movement and access restrictions and the suspension of revenue transfers. In [...] the continued absence of a political settlement [...], international aid can only help Palestinians survive and nothing else."

The occupation is obviously not the only challenge for Palestinians, but this issue prevents the solution of any other problem. This holds true for the OPT in general but even more so for Gaza where the biggest problem is the Israeli occupation and siege, condemning the small land strip to destitution.

But the international community treats Gaza as if it was struck by natural disaster and spends large sums of money (though still not enough) on rebuilding houses, delivering medical supplies, and food. At the same time Israel’s culpability and responsibility is politely ignored. Gaza is no humanitarian crisis. Framing Gaza’s persisting oppression as mainly a humanitarian problem, strips Palestinians of their political rights and turns them into “beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims,” states Sara Roy. Failure to hold Israel accountable for its actions has dire consequences: firstly, international aid, especially when it aspires to go beyond helping Gazans to survive, cannot achieve its goals while the occupation remains in place; secondly, it renders the international assistance to Gaza a substitute for Israeli accountability.
Gaza after Operation Protective Edge in 2014. ©Mark McGuinness


"[A]id is being used to sustain a failed peace process as well as the Israeli occupation itself."

These quotes epitomize the arguments I have made in this series of articles, in which I have delineated the attitudes and approaches leading to a situation where the UN has become part of the occupation of Palestine. This situation is the direct result of shutting out Hamas and Gazans, of promoting policies leaving Palestinians more dependent on the goodwill of their occupier, of treating Palestine as apolitical humanitarian catastrophe, and of not holding Israel accountable. Consequently, international assistance can only help Palestinians to survive. Rather than actually improving the situation, aid divides Palestinians, renders them more dependent, depoliticizes the conflict and exempts Israel from all responsibility.

Worldwide acceptance of this despicable process of continued destruction of Palestinian lives and homes is decreasing rapidly. Several Latin American countries recognized Palestine as a state and parliaments in EU member states passed resolutions calling for the recognition of an independent sovereign Palestinian state. The Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is gaining ground, especially in the field of academia. This is exactly the site of agency from which change and pressure on Israel can and will be expected.

This begs the question of what can be done on the part of international actors. International actors – states, international organisations, and international civil society organisations – need to stop undermining Palestinian unity at every step of the way. This also makes sense in light of the fact that no agreement on the future of Palestine can be made without including Hamas. The political nature underlying developmental, social, and economic challenges – meaning the occupation – in Palestine needs to be addressed by international actors and not ignored: instead of working with the occupier, the occupation itself needs to be challenged. Finally, it is paramount for international actors to hold Israel accountable for its actions.

*Stefanie Felsberger ist Forscherin am Access to Knowledge for Development Center an der Amerikanischen Universität in Kairo, Redakteurin bei shabka. Nebenbei versucht sie in einem Buchklub zu beweisen, dass Leute immer noch viel und gerne lesen, und zwar ganze Bücher. 

** Dieser Artikel ist zuerst auf als Artikelserie erschienen.

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