Israel’s eight-year, ongoing closure of the Gaza Strip maintains a protracted humanitarian crisis and prevents access to fundamental rights and freedoms of the population of almost two million Palestinians. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, have condemned the siege as unlawful collective punishment while the European Union has long considered it an illegal closure. After Israel’s July-August 2014 full-scale military assault on Gaza, the United Nations and the international community felt obliged to facilitate reconstruction. They did not, however, feel it necessary to pressure Israel to lift the closure and blockade. This helps to explain support for a futile Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) established through the United Nations. Today, not one home that was destroyed in the 2014 bombardment has been rebuilt.
Rather than challenge Israel’s siege and systematic attacks, the GRM is entrenching the closure. Moreover, the GRM is financially benefitting Israel. The same politics that have allowed an illegal occupation to endure for decades today undergird a reconstruction mechanism that does not reconstruct the Gaza Strip, but instead consolidates and incentivizes the continued suffering of Palestinians.
In/Efficacy of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism
On 7 July 2014, Israel launched a full-scale military offensive it codenamed `Operation Protective Edge` (OPE). The 51-day offensive was comprised of an intense campaign of military attacks by land, air, and sea against the Gaza Strip and resulted in the killing of 2,217 people in Gaza, over seventy percent of whom were civilians; including 556 children, 293 women and hundreds of elderly and disabled people. According to Al Mezan’s documentation, Israeli forces either partially or fully destroyed at least 31,974 housing structures, many of which hosted multiple housing units. Israeli forces destroyed and damaged civilian and public infrastructure en masse, including medical, sanitation, water, education, and electricity facilities.
The GRM was set up as a temporary agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli governments. Brokered by the United Nations in September 2014, the Mechanism’s primary purpose is to enable re/construction after the 2014 bombardment on Gaza. In light of the long-term closure and siege of Gaza, the stakeholders agreed that the Mechanism was “an important step towards the objective of lifting all remaining closures.” Notwithstanding these platitudes, the GRM has been counter-productive. Rather than ease and eventually end the siege, the GRM further institutionalizes the closure/blockade by strengthening Israel’s mechanisms of control over the Gaza Strip. The United Nations, with Palestinian Authority involvement, oversees the movement of goods, which it tracks and compiles in a database. Israel then reviews this database to determine which construction materials will be permitted entry into Gaza.
This ‘security’ measure, as stated by Israel, is allegedly supposed to ensure that the materials do not end up with Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza who might use the materials in military related activities. However, many people in Gaza who receive materials do not have the funds to cover the manpower necessary for construction. Rather than use them for their stated purpose, they then proceed to sell part or all of their cement on the black market. The sale of the cement on the black market is not monitored and materials can easily be sold to individuals connected to armed resistance groups. Israel`s agreed GRM is therefore not addressing the security concerns it states because once the cement is delivered to the recipient in Gaza, there is no controlling where it goes. Israel’s oversight function is much more about control than it is about security and it is facilitated by the GRM.
The GRM has not been effective in reconstruction and/or construction. Of the 8,377 houses that Israel fully destroyed, not a single one has been rebuilt. Of the 23,597 houses that were partially destroyed, only approximately five percent have been rebuilt. At present, approximately 12,000 people are still living in temporary shelters throughout Gaza. According to Oxfam International, at the current rate of reconstruction and without lifting the closure/blockade, it could take more than one-hundred years to rebuild Gaza’s “housing, education, and health infrastructure”.
The international community has also failed to make due on their pledges from the Cairo Conference on Palestine where several states pledged 5.4 billion USD to Palestine with approximately half of the funds earmarked for the reconstruction of Gaza. Almost two-thirds of these funds have not been delivered to Gaza.
Who Profits? And Accountability
The lack of clarity as to the functioning and responsibility of each stage of the GRM means that not only could the Israeli government be making huge financial gains through the Mechanism but that it could be purchasing cement for Gaza reconstruction from illegal settlements in the West Bank. The GRM does not contain an oversight mechanism of Israel. Without oversight of the manufacturing and purchasing of cement in Israel, Israel cannot be held accountable for inappropriate financial gains for the role it has assumed in the destruction and reconstruction of Gaza.
As the Occupying Power engaged in combat action, which harms civilians and destroys civilian infrastructure in violation of the laws of war, Israel has the responsibility to assume the role and absorb the costs of reconstruction. Instead, it is now in a position where it directly profits from the limited reconstruction it permits. Additionally, Israel has designed an infallible system of impunity within its domestic judicial system to block justice and shield Government decision-makers and military leaders from being held to account for violations stemming from the policies of the occupation, including the full-scale military bombardments of Gaza. This reality, implicitly and explicitly supported by the members of the international community that have hindered Palestinian access to justice and accountability at the United Nations as well as the International Criminal Court, has made the occupation a lucrative project. Far from deterring further harm, this arrangement has encouraged the devastating cycle of violence repeatedly wrought on Gaza.
The international community’s approach has been to wait out one futile peace process after another for decades. The issues faced by Palestinians with the GRM in Gaza are exemplary of the international community’s overall approach to Palestine: to support flawed, flimsy mechanisms subject to Israel’s ultimate discretion. The international community accepts them as a temporary measure that appears “better than nothing,” so to speak. Here, the international community seems to overlook two fundamental flaws. First, the GRM causes further immediate and long-term harm in Gaza. As such it is not a temporary measure. Secondly, the GRM provides a strengthened framework through which the occupiers of Gaza can maintain the closure and blockade with greater ease.
We are discussing the occupation of Palestine today because of the Oslo Accords that were recklessly instituted by Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the international community as a first step towards self-determination. Now two decades since the Accords, Palestinians live under the same framework of occupation and are further than ever from achieving peace. Aside from acceding to the Rome Statute– carried out under heavy pressure from the Palestinian population – the Palestinian Authority has by and large responded cosmetically to Israel’s escalating aggression and remained seemingly unmoved by shifting political winds. Conversely, the Israeli government has become increasingly bold and transparent in carrying out measures to further distance the two parties from peace. Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the surprisingly transparent speeches by PM Benjamin Netanyahu in his election speeches advocating for more settlements and promising that there will be no Palestinian state.
The international community must fulfill its obligations to the Palestinian people according to international law. The closure of Gaza must be fully and unconditionally lifted. This requires applying political pressure on Israel. Any mechanism, operating within the illegal framework of the occupation and complicit with the occupation authorities is not only insufficient as a temporary measure, but it actually entrenches the infringement on the rights and freedoms of the Palestinian population.
In the aftermath of a devastating military campaign of the Gaza Strip in 2014, lifting the closure is imperative. The GRM is not the answer. Nor can it be. There is no need for bureaucratic, dysfunctional mechanisms that foil critical reconstruction efforts. Nor is there room for mechanisms that institutionalize unlawful policies as the GRM entrenches the policies of closure and blockade. There is a need to lift the closure now and allow people to build their homes and their lives; to allow them access to justice and dignity.