Figuring out the relationship between cement, tunnels, security and the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip is like trying to solve an immensely complex jigsaw puzzle and a puzzle that morphs over time.
In the period before this summer’s war, human rights groups, often led by Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, demanded that the IDF allow more cement into Gaza for building residences and commercial interests and trying to promote a stable economy in one of the world’s more downtrodden areas, even criticizing the IDF as violating international law.
While prior to Hamas’s 2007 takeover, the IDF had allowed more trade and flow of people between Gaza and Israel and the outside world, including cement, since 2007 and the maritime blockade, the firing of rockets and the wars, the IDF has clamped down.
That clamping down became a complete stop once the IDF located Hamas attack tunnels emanating from the Strip and reaching into Israel, which were built partially using cement.
The government took the position that it could not allow cement into the territory since Hamas was using it, or could use it, to build attack tunnels.
Critics disputed whether and to what extent Hamas was using cement, which they said could be supervised until Operation Protective Edge when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was aired walking through an attack tunnel, knocking his fist on the cement used to build it.
One might have imagined that would have “won” Israel’s argument.
Instead, the entire conversation has shifted, with Israel, on its own, agreeing to permit large amounts of construction materials into Gaza as part of a jointly negotiated IDF-UN-Palestinian Authority oversight mechanism, in order to rebuild the estimated 7,000 totally destroyed and 89,000 partially damaged homes in Gaza post-war.
Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and other Israel leaders publicly came out in favor of the vital interest the country had in rebuilding Gaza to stabilize and keep the peace.
Reenter Gisha, founded by Sari Bashi, who recently won the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award, making several updated claims.
Acknowledging that 183,044 tons of construction materials have entered Gaza post-Protective Edge, it says the volume and rate of construction are totally inadequate, as it says some 5 million tons are needed for rebuilding, without even getting into another 5 million needed for normal economic needs.
Gisha says that at the current rate, it would take an unconscionable 10 years to return Gaza to its pre-war state.
As a side point, it does seem that the rate of rebuilding has increased somewhat as about two months ago the estimated rate was 19 years, but few would view 10 years as a tolerable time frame.
Gisha says the IDF’s mechanism for overseeing the bringing in of materials is unnecessary and is responsible for the slow pace of reconstruction, and that this should be done away with as well as the IDF’s continued global limits on trade.
The nongovernmental organization adds that the fact the IDF is letting so much construction materials into Gaza post-war has exposed its pre-war security objection to allowing materials in.
Also, it says the change exposes the mechanism and continued security clampdowns as hollow and politically motivated.
Gisha has gone one step farther and made the new claim that even if Hamas can and does use cement to build tunnels, Israeli security sources have confirmed that Hamas can build tunnels without cement.
Since Gisha’s source for the issue was an anonymous security source quoted in a single Hebrew media article, The Jerusalem Post investigated the issue, contacting the IDF Spokesman’s Office, the Defense Ministry and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).
None of the above officially admitted to having confirmed that Hamas could make tunnels without cement or would comment on the issue on the record, though the IDF and COGAT both seemed to think that the area was the Defense Ministry’s expertise. (The ministry still refused to respond after being confronted with this information.) However, the Post was able to confirm the Gisha claim that Hamas can make tunnels without cement.
Does that mean that Gisha has won the argument over the cement issue, that the IDF’s pre-war security claims are exposed and that the IDF should remove the supervisory mechanism to speed up reconstruction? There is a view that the primary reason that rebuilding is so slow is not because of the reconstruction mechanism, though there is a lively debate about whether it secondarily contributes somewhat to slowing things down.
According to this view, held by various parties including the UN, the primary root of slow rebuilding is the absence of donor funding.
UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process James Rowley told The Post that the primary issue for moving the reconstruction phase forward (including, not only cement, but also iron bars and machinery) was the shortage in reconstruction funds.
Despite around $5.4 billion being pledged on October 12, only around $100 million or 2 percent of the funds have reached the UN and NGOs.
Rowley called on the donor countries, including Germany, the US, Italy, various Gulf countries and others to move on their donations.
Asked about whether it was reasonable for donors to delay dispersing funds with the unwinding of the Fatah-Hamas cooperation, Hamas’s recent military march and continued recent low-level violence between Israel and Gaza, Rowley said an emphatic “no.”
He added, “don’t delay funds for the ideal scenario when Gaza is in dire need of houses to cope with the winter,” stating that more and quicker dispersal of pledged reconstruction funding could make “Gaza more stable” and reduce the “chance of implosion in Gaza.”
Rowley said that 13,000 individuals (also confirmed by COGAT) had already received materials for reconstructing shelters, while qualifying that other than two schools and Gaza’s power plant beginning reconstruction soon, the vast majority of infrastructure, school and UNRWA offices (mentioning that at least three of which were hit by the IDF leading to civilian casualties) rebuilding projects have not even begun.
Supporting the view that the mechanism is not the primary obstacle delaying reconstruction, COGAT officials said that right now the IDF is only being asked to let in around 350 trucks of rebuilding and other supplies per day, but it could allow up to 600 per day if requested and could even eventually accommodate larger numbers.
In fact, the Post understands that NIS 20m. is being invested to make the crossings capable of possibly letting in up to 800 trucks per day.
Confronted with statements by the UN and others that the primary obstacle to faster reconstruction is the donor issue, not the IDF supervisory mechanism, Gisha responded, first saying that the issue of donors is beyond its mandate or basis to comment.
But Gisha added that it did believe that the mechanism slows down the delivery of construction materials based on security arguments that have been disproved.
The NGO also doubled-down, saying that in the bigger picture, Gaza cannot escape its morbid condition or become stable in a way that could decrease the chance of war without removing the mechanism and opening the crossings to restore Israel as Gaza’s biggest trading partner.
Here, Rowley agreed with Gisha, saying Gaza has been sliding backwards since the 1990s, even before the summer war unemployment was over 50%, malnutrition was a major issue and the reconstruction mechanism was “not the messiah” and “only a partial solution.”
He said he had envisioned the mechanism as temporary, eventually to be phased out along with removal of the maritime blockade, full opening of trade, returning Gaza workers to Israel and a viable Palestinian state.
A response to that has been expressed as that there is no need for lifting the maritime blockade and that all Gaza needs can be handled by land.
In terms of whether Israel has compromised its security by permitting so much cement into Gaza, some of which Hamas might use even with the reconstruction mechanism, COGAT officials said “the mechanism is crucially important to Israel, though it must be noted that Israel is not dependent solely on the mechanism in order to defend the safety of her citizens.”
The Post has learned that extra actions may be taken to check the final destination of the dual-use materials, beyond the official supervision by the UN.
Also, there is a view that it is worth taking a calculated risk where the mechanism at least makes it harder for Hamas to skim off cement from civilians and raises the “cost” (such as turning civilians against it from who they take the cement) to try to stabilize Gaza.
Rejecting criticism of the pre-war no cement policy, of wider restrictions on Gaza and of returning to the 1990s situation being unrealistic, there is a view that the Hamas rockets and attack tunnels have too fundamentally altered the landscape.
All of this returns full circle to a seemingly unresolvable dispute between security, reconstruction and stabilization needs in Gaza which could come apart at any time in the next round of conflict.