GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Enormous amounts of construction materials are needed to repair and rebuild the thousands of homes and businesses that were damaged in Gaza in last month’s conflict between Israel and Hamas.
But international donors, including the United States, that have pledged funds want to make sure those supplies don’t end up in the hands of Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza.
Israel said its airstrikes and artillery barrages targeted the group’s military infrastructure, especially its network of underground tunnels used to store and transport military equipment and personnel. The tunnels often run underneath civilian areas.
More than 1,000 housing and commercial units in Gaza were destroyed and over 750 homes were severely damaged in the 11-day Israeli bombardment, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian office, citing the Gazan government. Schools, hospitals, roads and water and energy infrastructure were also damaged. At least 250 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of children.
Israel says militants in Gaza fired more than 4,000 rockets in May, killing 13 people in Israel. The Israeli military says hundreds of the rockets fell short in the Gaza Strip, causing some of the damage and casualties there.
After the previous conflict in 2014, the U.N. joined with Israel and the Palestinian Authority — which governs Palestinians in the West Bank but has little authority in Gaza — to put in place an observation and tracking system to ensure donated construction materials reach civilians, not militants.
In the years since, the system, known as the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), facilitated the construction of more than 600 large-scale projects along with homes for more than 140,000 Gazans, according to a March report by the humanitarian group Oxfam.
Hamas is stronger
Yet the monitoring of materials required by the GRM apparently did little to keep Hamas from rearming, experts say.
“Seven years after 2014, look, Hamas is much more stronger,” says Gaza-based political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada. “They have more tunnels. They have more missile capabilities. Where did that come from? We don’t know.”
Additionally, international aid groups and contractors in Gaza say the GRM hampered the reconstruction effort. Multiple industry experts say the mechanism increased the costs of projects by as much as 15% or 20%, and slow bureaucratic approval processes caused construction delays of weeks or even months.
“It was a very slow process, bureaucratic,” Abusada says. “It took months and years for people to rebuild and reconstruct their destroyed homes.”
Gaza has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt most of the time since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Egypt’s border with Gaza, called Rafah, is less tightly controlled than the Israeli side. Construction materials have flowed freely through that border for some time, according to multiple construction industry sources in Gaza.
Israel can veto projects
The GRM was meant to be a temporary arrangement when it launched in 2014. It is not yet clear whether the U.N. and Israel will strictly enforce the mechanism in the wake of last month’s conflict. Gaza’s largest contractors’ union announced after the cease-fire that it would boycott any bids or agencies committed to using GRM-approved materials.
“[The GRM’s] declared objective is for construction materials not to reach the resistance groups. But resistance groups haven’t been impacted because they have their own resources, and they can get their goods through their own ways,” said Usama Kuhail, the union’s chief. “Therefore the objective here is not a security one, but it is rather a way to impede reconstruction and development.”
Under the GRM, civilians seeking to use international aid to repair their homes or businesses must submit to multiple levels of scrutiny in order to access materials. The same applies to international organizations planning public projects like hospitals, schools and roads.
First, an inspector must assess the damage of a home or building whose owner is seeking reconstruction assistance, according to the GRM website. Then, construction plans must be reviewed first by the Palestinian Authority, then by the Israeli government, which can veto any project over security concerns. The approval process can take months.
“What Israel wants, happens. Period,” says Faysal Shawa, the owner of a large contracting company that has worked on multiple GRM projects in the years since the 2014 conflict.
If approved, only a specific amount of cement or other materials can be purchased, and they must be purchased from a GRM-approved vendor, whose warehouses and factories are subject to their own burdensome set of requirements.
30,000 bricks waiting to be used
At Shawa’s GRM-compliant warehouse in northeastern Gaza, supervisor Mahmoud Imwasi pointed out eight cameras that monitor the premises 24 hours a day. The 24/7 monitoring requirement means the warehouse must have uninterrupted access to electricity, a rarity in Gaza where power frequently cuts out for hours at a time.
Failing to comply with any of the restrictions risks temporary or permanent suspension from GRM accreditation, which risks the company’s ability to take on big projects in the future.
The 30,000-some bricks sitting under the sheet metal roof have been here for years, Imwasi says. As GRM materials, they can only be sold to a GRM customer. A mostly empty storage room holds a single pallet stacked with bags of cement that are so old they have turned solid.
“This is my money,” says Imwasi as he gestured toward the stacks of bricks. “I can’t use it. I can’t recycle it. I can’t do anything with it.”
Despite the inactivity, Imwasi says, the Shawa warehouse is still subject to surprise inspections by monitors from the U.N. Office for Project Services, who come a few times a month to review security footage and count the bricks to make sure none have been sold on the black market.
As a result of the requirements, many contractors and vendors, including Shawa, have resorted to dealing in both Israeli and Egyptian materials, which have become much easier to access in recent years.
These days, anyone can walk into a cement warehouse in downtown Gaza City and purchase multiple bags of Egyptian cement, no scrutiny necessary.
Hamas says it won’t divert aid, U.S. says it will make sure of that
Hamas says it has its own sources of construction materials and money, and has publicly thanked Iran for assistance. In a news conference last month, Yahya Sinwar, the group’s leader in Gaza, pledged not to divert any international aid meant for civilians.
“What we spent on the building of our tunnels and the building of our military capacities is minimal when it comes to the overall amount that is needed for the civilian infrastructure for our people,” Sinwar said.
Israel has acknowledged that the GRM failed to prevent Hamas from getting stronger. Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Conricus says the solution is to place even more restrictions on the import of building materials.
“We think that there is a desperate need to improve the mechanisms that are currently in place,” Conricus said in an interview with NPR. “Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before Hamas will again abuse international aid for military purposes, and we will find ourselves in another military confrontation with this terrorist organization.”
The United States, which has pledged to help fund the reconstruction, is also concerned about Hamas misusing supplies. “We’ll work with our partners closely with all to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from the reconstruction assistance,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Jerusalem in May. The U.S., Israel and other countries label Hamas a terrorist organization.
Negotiations on how to structure aid to Gaza continued this week, with Hamas reportedly seeking to reduce the role of the Palestinian Authority.
Many Gazans and aid workers say they don’t want to just repeat the monitoring of the past.
“I think if they start to put obstacles in the way of reconstructing Gaza, it means we are heading towards another round of violence,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesperson for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. “It means that nothing changed, that we are not addressing the root cause of the problems.”
Daniel Estrin contributed to this report in Gaza City.