TEL AVIV — The recent Gaza aid conference in Cairo concluded with an international promise to pump $5.4 billion into rebuilding the devastated Gaza Strip. But even among the summit's participants, there were doubts about whether these pledges would actually turn into reality.
Past experience shows that financial pledges to Gaza have rarely been paid in full, mainly those made by Arab nations, themselves in the midst of upheaval.
The promised amounts are impressive. Qatar pledged one billion dollars; the European Union about $570 million; Saudi Arabia around $500 million; and the U.S. committed $400 million.
According to the conference announcements, about half the total — approximately $2.7 billion — is expected to be channeled to the housing sector. This sum is indeed larger than the Palestinian Authority's rebuilding estimate, but still smaller than previous estimates. It seems that even the Palestinians are not sure the exact extent of the damage.
The remaining donations are intended for more broadly defined "economic aid" — for instance, to boost economic growth. But these blurry definitions are doing little to build optimism among Gazans.
In addition, the hostility between Gaza's two prime Arab actors — namely, Qatar and Egypt — could significantly slow down the process. The Egyptian government is unconvinced about Qatar's intentions in Gaza, and trust among the two is at an all-time low.
Egypt's Central Bank recently announced it would return a $500 million grant Qatar had delivered during the days of former President Mohamed Morsi. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime is not interested in any contact with Qatar, and it's unclear how the Gulf emirate's pledged donation would reach Gaza.
How to deliver the money?
A central issue is the structure of the mechanism for tranferring the funds. Despite UN statements regarding an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, details about the mechanism have not been disclosed. Even reports two weeks ago about an Israeli go-ahead for 60 Gaza-bound truckloads of construction materials have turned out to be untrue. Likewise was the case with reports about a pending transfer of control over the Gaza border crossings to the Palestinian Authorities.
Ruins in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Photo: Muhammad Sabah
It is clear to all that the key to rebuilding Gaza is construction materials entering Gaza from either Israel or Egypt. Israel is concerned about the materials' end use — who's responsible for their transfer and who receives them. If these are Hamas members, as was the case in the aftermath of previous conflicts, they would certainly end up being used for rehabilitating Hamas tunnels and development of additional capabilities.
Hamas statements suggest the movement's leaders are eager to start recovery work in Gaza as soon as possible. That could be because of their intention to restore Hamas military power as well as the movement's political authority, which had been undermined by the unprecedented devastation.
To get the recovery work started, Hamas is willing to accept the upcoming visit of Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas to the Gaza Strip, the first such visit since Hamas took over in 2007.
The situation in Gaza is dire. Since the end of the Israeli campaign, "not a single room has been built," a parliament member close to Hamas recently said. The Palestinians are worried about the nearing winter, as tens of thousands of people remain without shelter. Optimistic assessments suggest that rebuilding Gaza will take about five years, and now solutions are needed for the thousands of displaced people.
According to preliminary surveys by UN experts, approximately 6,800 buildings have been completely demolished, nearly 3,500 were severely damaged, and about 5,000 others are mildly damaged. These figures are three times higher than in the aftermath of Israel's 2009 Operation Cast Lead. In addition, 31 education structures and approximately 4,500 acres of agricultural land have been damaged.
The prospects of the recovery efforts are unclear. With Israel particularly suspicious toward Hamas and the bickering Arab nations, it may be that Gazans themselves are again left to pay the price.
*Doron Peskin is research director at Info-Prod Research (Middle East).