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Oct 13, 2014 11:02 AM

Despite pledged $2.7B, challenges ahead for Gaza

The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) Pledges of $2.7 billion for reconstructing the Gaza Strip may seem impressive, but huge challenges lie ahead as the Palestinian government had asked for more and its prime minister questioned Monday whether all of the money would actually arrive.

The rebuilding of thousands of homes, shops and factories destroyed in the Israel-Hamas war this summer also will require cooperation between longtime adversaries and an intricate monitoring system, either of which could break down at any point.

Israel will have to lift its border restrictions, in place since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, and allow huge quantities of cement and steel into the territory. By some estimates, Israel will have to let in more than 20 times what it permitted before the war if Gaza's housing needs are to be met within five years.

On the Gaza side, United Nations inspectors and a Palestinian unity government trying to take over from Hamas will have to ensure that the shipments are not diverted by the Islamic militant group for military use, such as anti-Israel attack tunnels it built in the past.

Hamas says it will let the Western-backed unity government operate, but it remains the de facto power in Gaza with its unchallenged military arsenal and could easily sabotage reconstruction efforts if it felt it is relinquishing too much authority.

At a conference Sunday in Cairo, donors pledged $5.4 billion, half of that for Gaza and the rest in budget support for the cash-strapped Palestinian government, to be paid through 2017. The Palestinian Authority had asked for $8.5 billion, including $4 billion for Gaza and $4.5 billion to help cover its chronic budget deficit.

Mohammed Mustafa, the Palestinian government official overseeing reconstruction, said Monday that he is satisfied, considering post-war Gaza is competing with other crises for international aid.

"We consider this to be a good result, taking into consideration ... that the world is busy with other issues," Mustafa said.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said it is critical that the donors make good on their pledges, noting that only a small fraction of pledged money after the Israel-Hamas war in 2009 was sent.

"Our plans are ready for the reconstruction, but it depends on the flow of the money," Hamdallah said after meeting U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon. "In 2009, most of the pledged money did not come. We hope that this time is different."

One of the most pressing needs in Gaza is to find temporary housing, including mobile homes or apartments, for tens of thousands of Gazans homeless after the war, including 60,000 who still live in U.N. schools.

In the long term, more than 100,000 new apartments would have to be built to meet the needs of Gaza's population of 1.8 million people, said a coalition of U.N. agencies and other aid groups that deal with Gaza housing issues.

This includes an estimated pre-war shortage of 80,000 apartments, largely due to the border closure that kept out building supplies, and 20,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged this summer, the group said.

It calculates that about 440 truckloads of building materials need to enter Gaza from Israel every day if these 100,000 apartments were to be built in five years.

By contrast, an average of 20 trucks a day with building materials entered Gaza in the first six months of this year, down from 32 a day in 2013. Before the war, Israel only allowed imports of construction materials for use in U.N.-supervised projects.

As part of the strict pre-war arrangement, the U.N. also devised a system of constant supervision on the Gaza side, said U.N. inspector Keith Mathias-O'Chez, who keeps tabs on building materials. The monitoring included guards and U.N. engineers at construction sites, daily visits to factories mixing concrete for U.N. projects and detailed monthly reports to Israel.

"Basically, we have monitors 24 hours, watching the cement that is stored at the site, watching the cement that goes to the factories and the cement that goes to the warehouses," Mathias-O'Chez said.

Under a post-war deal between Israel, the Palestinian government and the U.N., the stringent system is to be eased.

Israel promised to loosen its border constraints gradually. After a testing period that could begin as early as this week, Israel is to allow vetted Palestinian contractors to import increasingly larger quantities of building materials. Also this week, the Palestinian government is expected to start deploying border inspectors, including customs agents, on the Gaza side.

In Gaza, U.N. engineers would perform a small number of spot checks on what could eventually be thousands of work sites, since about 80,000 apartments need repairs, in addition the 20,000 razed or rendered inhabitable in the last war. Builders have an incentive not to sell supplies on the black market since they would lose lucrative contracts if they come up short.

According to details published on a U.N. website, Israel also agreed to approve specific quantities of materials for Gaza, based on Palestinian calculations, rather than demanding to sign off on every project, a previous time-consuming bureaucratic hurdle.

Key officials involved in setting up the fragile arrangement appeared optimistic, though much can go wrong.

Ban, the U.N. chief, said reconstruction must start without delay. However, he said only a lifting of the Gaza blockade can ended the cycle of violence.

"Economic revival, which requires the predictable exit and entry of goods and people, can change the dynamics on the ground and ultimately enhances stability in Gaza, which in turn will improve Israel's security," Ban said.


Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.


Follow Karin Laub on Twitter at www.twitter.com/karin_laub .


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