Gaza is stuck. For 50 days in July and August 2014, the Strip took a beating while Hamas and other Palestinian factions fired rockets at Israel and engaged on the ground with the Israel Defense Forces. By the end of the conflict, more than 18,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed, 100,000 people left without shelter and 560 factories and businesses damaged or destroyed.
After the war, a number of international players identified reconstructing Gaza as a key objective, with both humanitarian and political ends. Almost a year later, the Strip is still far from recovery. The system created to deliver aid and reconstruction assistance has fallen short of meeting its goals.
The good news is that there is growing international interest in brokering an arrangement between Israel and Hamas that would secure a longer period of calm and spur reconstruction of, and investment in, Gaza. The bad news is that Hamas remain far from united with Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) government in the West Bank. While momentum for reconstructing Gaza still exists, it is time to seriously re-think the current approach and push for a policy that strengthens reconciliation between both Israel and Hamas as well as between the Palestinian factions.
The international commitment to reconstruction after the war in 2014 came in response to the need for rapid and effective assistance to be channeled to the Gaza Strip. This conflict had yet again brought great devastation to the already fragile Palestinian enclave, with serious damage to virtually all infrastructure, including access to health care, water, sanitation and hygiene, shelter, and education.
The international community also saw the political merits of supporting reconstruction. Rebuilding Gaza could become a key to strengthening Palestine and its economy and to helping the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas’s dire state of financial need also was seen as a key lever, using reconstruction as a way to gradually empower the PA and facilitate its return to the Strip. Gaza reconstruction could also serve as a conflict stabiliser: giving the Palestinian population reason to oppose a future confrontation.
Instead, a number of internal and regional factors have turned the “reconstruction aid for unity” bargain into a stalemate.
A major stumbling block is that the funds and the construction materials that have actually reached Gaza are well below the Strip’s soaring needs. In October 2014, when Egypt and Norway hosted the Cairo Conference on Palestine, donors pledged $5.4 billion, with roughly half of the funds designated to the Gaza reconstruction process.Yet pledges have fallen short and money destined to Gaza is leaving Ramallah at a glacial pace, if at all. As of April 2015, the World Bank estimates that only 27 percent of pledged aid has reached Gaza. The international shortcomings are not only due to general donor fatigue, but they also reflect the international community’s wariness of financing yet another round of reconstruction given the possibility of yet another round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. Additionally, there is a hesitance that assistance to Gaza may inadvertently strengthen Hamas, and further undermine the PA.
Nor has the main donors’ political vision been fulfilled. The Cairo Conference placed thePalestinian Government of National Consensus in charge of the reconstruction and “recommended” the financial contributions be paid to the Palestinian Single Treasury Account—in other words, for the funds to be channeled through the PA.
The expectation was that the PA would use the financial assistance as a leverage to gradually wrestle control away from Hamas and to take control of Gaza’s crossings, customs authority, and civil service. Yet, the lack of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, as well as the latter's generally unenthusiastic attitude towards taking responsibility for Gaza have stalled progress on this front. Indeed, Palestinian factions appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Fatah’s recent announcement with respect to dissolving the unity government is stark indication of this trend
Under these grim circumstances, only simultaneously pursuing a long term truce between Israel and Hamas while the PA steps up its role in Gaza could allow both humanitarian and political ends to be achieved. Palestinian factions need to tackle their outstanding differences, but outside actors can provide a positive influence.
First, the international community should use its significant leverage over the Fatah leadership toadvance the possibility of an effective deal on Gaza and to break away from the current shortcomings of the reconstruction efforts. Major donors, including the United States and the European Union, should condemn the dismissal of the Government of National Consensus and oppose the option of a new one being created without Hamas—an option reportedly on the table if negotiations fail. External players should encourage reconciliation (and of course withdraw threats of financial sanctions) and push for the adoption of a compromise solution over both the payment of Hamas-hired civil service employees in Gaza as well as the larger process of re-integrating pre-2007 civil servants. The PA should also be encouraged to take responsibility for Gaza’s border crossings.
More than financial incentives for positive PA action, the international community—especially European states—should also use political and diplomatic tools to encourage PA president Mahmoud Abbas to make these moves. Abbas sees his legacy in international recognition of the State of Palestine, but the almost eight-year separation of the West Bank and Gaza raises the possibility that he will leave the scene with Palestine even more fractured and weak. In this sense foreign governments should stop promoting “two-state” peace initiatives that leave the status of Gaza for another day.
Second, the leverage of resolving the salary crisis and speeding up reconstruction should become the principal tool to push Hamas not only to accept a stronger PA role in Gaza—including by assuming control of the borders—but also to commit to observe, and enforce, a long-term truce with Israel.
Third, Israel and Egypt should ease restrictions from their sides of the crossings. Again a greater role in the Strip for the PA would be an incentive in this sense, as Egypt has publicly stated it will not permanently open the Rafah crossing as long as Hamas is on the other side.
For Israel’s part, it is essential to both ease import and export restrictions, which will speed up the delivery of reconstruction materials. Israel has allowed basic reconstructions materials into Gaza for international aid organizations, the Palestinian Water Authority, and the private sector; but the actual quantities and speed of the deliveries are underwhelming. The so-called Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) between Israel, the PA, and the United Nations constitutes a substantial bottleneck: for example the construction material which entered Gaza between August and April only met an estimate 10 percent of private sector demand.
Israel must work with the United Nations and the PA—at the border—to ensure the pace of reconstruction is quick enough to reverse the effect and destruction of the war. Just as importantly, the only sustainable way forward in Gaza is to encourage local development, not just reconstruction. While this will be largely the task of the international community, Israel needs to allow exports to flow out of Gaza, a key measure to allow the economic re-integration of Gaza with the West Bank.
With the chances for a serious peace process between Israel and Palestine growing dimmer by the day, and with increasing concerns about the state of instability in Gaza, a number of international actors are focusing on the Strip with the hope of brokering a long-term calm between Hamas and Israel in exchange for speeding up the pace of reconstruction and easing economic restrictions.
These efforts all recognize that there may be window of opportunity to broker a deal in Gaza: with Israel interested in longer term stability and aware that Hamas may very well be the “lesser evil” in Gaza; and with Hamas desperately needing financial assistance for reconstruction and, more importantly for the organization, to pay the salaries of the public servants on its payroll in the Strip. To carry forward this agenda while strengthening the future of Palestine as one state, it will be vital to also include the PA in the equation and to shift from tolerating to supporting Palestinian unity.
Benedetta Berti is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is a Kreitman Fellow at Ben Gurion University, a TED 2015 Fellow, and author of Armed Political Organizations: From Conflict to Integration. Zack Gold is a Visiting Fellow at INSS. Follow them on Twitter @benedettabertiw and @ZLGold.