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Money won’t buy Gaza peace (or even reconstruction)

In a rare moment of unity, representatives of nearly 90 countries and international organizations met in Cairo last week

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

In a rare moment of unity, representatives of nearly 90 countries and international organizations met in Cairo last week to pledge their support for the reconstruction of Gaza. The talks turned out to be as much a desperate pleading for the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume peace talks and discussion about the means to empower the Palestinian Authority, as about helping Gaza to recover from the devastation of the summer’s war with Israel. The apparent success of the summit in the Egyptian capital can be seen not only in terms of the amount of money raised, but also in its success in attracting most of the world’s political movers and shakers in solidarity with the people of Gaza. There were, however, two notable absences, the two major protagonists of the recent round of violence –Israel and Hamas. They were seen as unwelcome guests who would only ruin this party of consensus if they showed up in the hotel’s ballroom where the summit took place.

On the face of it, this was one of the most successful international fundraisers ever for any cause. Within few hours, $5.4 billion was pledged - half of it towards the badly needed reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and the rest as unspecified aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Considering that the PA requested only $4 billion this must have been an exceptional instance of satisfaction for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who presided over the summit along with Egypt and Norway.

The 50- day war, not only left more than 2100 Palestinians dead in Gaza and 11,000 injured, but also devastated the infrastructure of the place on a massive scale

Yossi Mekelberg

Yet, the very next day, the more somber voice of the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah urged the donor countries to honor their pledges. This plea derived from a long history of broken promises in the past. The Palestinians are disillusioned with promises from the international community to help following devastating hostilities with the Israelis – they are seldom materialize. Moreover, it was clear to all the participants in the summit that without Israeli co-operation, first and foremost, and collaboration of Egypt and all Palestinian factions, it would be difficult, almost impossible to embark on the reconstruction of Gaza.

The 50- day war, not only left more than 2100 Palestinians dead in Gaza and 11,000 injured, but also devastated the infrastructure of the place on a massive scale. The small strip of land which suffered from an acute lack of housing even before the war, witnessed 18,000 homes destroyed and many others badly damaged, not to mention schools and hospitals battered by constant Israeli bombardment. According to UNWRA, on the eve of the war there was a shortage of 75,000 housing units, in its aftermath additional 100,000 Gazan people became homeless and half of this number were forced to take refuge in U.N. run shelters. Based on any indicator of human development, Gaza has been an obvious place in desperate need of help for a very long time. Gaza experiences long hours with no electricity on a daily basis, along with constant high levels of poverty and unemployment, appalling sanitary conditions, and shortages of medical care and schools, all of which make the living there a prolonged and unacceptable misery.

Much of it, as all of the participants in the Cairo summit emphasized, is the result of the absence of peace with Israel. The entire population in Gaza suffers from trauma as the result of the recurrent conflict with Israel. After years of blockade Gaza is left as a big open prison, isolated almost completely from the world. Israel’s excessive use of military force this summer was worse than ever before. In confronting Hamas they piled further suffering and terrible destruction in Gaza. The 1.8 million Gazans need the world to support and care for them, but humanitarian assistance provides only one element aimed at solving a very complex problem. Indeed with unemployment at 45%, and even higher among youth, and similar figures of people living under the poverty line, economic investment and reconstruction are urgently needed. However, the summit in Cairo looked like a charity dinner auction in which rich members showed off both their wealth and compassion, rather than the preparation of any long term strategy designed to resolve a humanitarian crisis.

Ensuring accountability

Even if any single cent promised finds its way to the coffers of the Palestinian Authority, there is still no mechanism to distribute and ensure accountability of its spending. Consequently there is no guarantee that it is used to benefit the people who desperately need it. Furthermore, past experience tells us that no one in the international community is ready to challenge Israel’s control of access to the Gaza Strip and guarantee that goods, especially construction material, will be let in. In order for such massive project to bear fruits it requires an inclusive process among the Palestinians. So far there is nothing to suggest that this is going to be the case either. Crucially, without a genuine peace process accompanied by the removal of restrictions on free trade, and free movement of people and capital, another round of hostilities with Israel would be a question of when not if. Three rounds of violence in less than six years indicate that addressing the humanitarian hardships cannot come instead of resolving the politically protracted crisis – they should be tackled simultaneously. Israel’s need for security has to be respected, however, not in a manner which violates Palestinians’ human, political and economic rights, as if they are subordinated to Israeli security perceptions. A former Israeli senior minister, Dan Meridor, recently shed some light on the Israeli mindset in imposing closure on Gaza. Meridor revealed that when Ehud Barak was the minister of defense a few years ago, he had asked him to reveal the reasons behind the Gaza blockade. Barak admitted that it was a case of government inertia. ‘At some point, during the Second Lebanon War, there was a decision to separate [Gaza and the West Bank]: things will be good in the West Bank, and not as good in Gaza’. In other words the people of Gaza were singled out for punishment for electing the Hamas and no one in Israeli decision making had either the common sense or the common decency to reevaluate a policy which should not have existed in the first place. It causes the Palestinians daily suffering and also causes long term damage to Israeli interests.

If the donor countries, that so generously pledged a huge amount of money for the reconstruction of Gaza, are serious in their intention to make Gaza a better place, they need to address the bigger picture of the political conditions. Such a process has to address the internal political dynamics among the Palestinians and ensure that all segments of society become stake holders not only in reconstructing Gaza, but also in re-building the Palestinian society and polity. Moreover, it needs to take into account rivalries among donors, their vested interests and guarantee that all pledges are fulfilled. Most importantly it has to ensure that the Israeli ‘inertia’ of perpetuating the suffering of the people of Gaza as a matter of policy comes to an end with no delay.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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