Trying to rebuild your house in Gaza is a Kafkaesque nightmare

A Palestinian man uses a bucket of water as he reconstructs his house, on June 28, 2015, which was destroyed during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the summer of 2014, in the Eastern Gaza City Shujaiya neighborhood.
Mohammed Abed

GAZA CITY, Gaza— “Why are you barefoot?” barks Mohamed Slama as his little daughter skitters across the rubble that was once their ground floor. She stops, smiles, and climbs into his lap.

Slama, a 30-year-old government employee, lives with his wife and three children on the second floor of a building that was mostly destroyed by shelling during Operation Protective Edge last summer. The staircase of their one-room home now stands open to the elements, the bottom steps sheared off by a tank shell.

“It’s dangerous,” he says, nodding at the shards of rubble around him, “but we have nowhere else to go.”

His family is one of thousands that have been unable to rebuild their homes more than a year after the devastating conflict. Much of Gaza is still rubble, and more than 100,000 people remain homeless.

One of the reasons they're still desperate a year later: The international community has failed to deliver billions of dollars in aid promised for rebuilding the small coastal territory. Another is the cumbersome bureaucratic process Gazans have to go through to get the materials and funds needed to rebuild their lives.

More from this series: The world promised billions to rebuild Gaza, but didn't deliver

Those who've been able to get some aid say that access to construction materials and funding streams is out of sync. Those who manage to get money to reconstruct their homes sometimes can’t access building materials to spend it on. And those who are authorized by the Israelis to purchase materials sometimes don’t have the money to buy them.

With all these obstacles, many Gazans have given up hope that they will ever rebuild.

Mohamed Slama's house that he has partially reinforced with wood bought on the black market. He lives here with his wife and three children.

The blockade

Since the 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel has enforced a strict blockade that limits the import of “dual-use materials” — anything that might be used for military as well as civilian purposes. Israel says the blockade exists to stop parts that could be used to build rockets from entering Gaza. But the ban also prevents most construction materials from getting in.  

This presents a problem for a rebuilding effort that requires millions of tons of supplies.

Israel has to approve every ton of cement, every piece of steel rebar, and every ounce of aggregate that comes into Gaza, a monumental task when more than 10,000 housing units were fully destroyed and more than 100,000 sustained some form of partial damage. The process is Byzantine and opaque.

When Slama came back to his home after taking shelter in a nearby school last year, most of the outer wall of his apartment was missing. He reinforced it himself with wood bought on the black market. Wood, too, Israel considers dual-use, because it's used to reinforce the walls of smuggling tunnels. 

You don't have to be an expert to see how easily this process could get hung up.

He had recently made thousands of dollars' worth of upgrades to the property.

“I fixed it up four months before the war. I paid 24,000 [Jordanian] dinars [more than $30,000]. It was for our future,” he says. There were four apartments for a family of 13.

He has applied for rebuilding materials through the UN Development Program (UNDP), but it’s been months and he’s heard nothing.

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Thousands of other homeless families are struggling to negotiate the same process. It works like this: First a homeowner must apply to the Gazan Ministry of Housing and Public Works, detailing the damage and estimating the amount of money they need. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) or the UNDP then assesses the damage, and submits the names of homeowners and materials required to the ministry. The UN also supplies that estimate to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which shares it with Israel, which has final say. Once approved, the Gazan homeowner must sign an agreement saying they will only use the materials to build their house. Then the materials are brought into Gaza.

The trucks coming into Gaza carrying materials are checked by the Israeli authorities. Gazan contractors must also have security clearance from the Israeli government. Once in Gaza, materials are stored in warehouses surrounded by high walls that are under 24-hour surveillance by inspectors and cameras. When the homeowners have money from international agencies to buy materials, it is disbursed in stages as the homeowner proves they are indeed using the materials to build houses. For larger projects the cement is also released in stages, out of concern that it might be sold off or used for non-civilian purposes.

UN staff accompany the materials to construction sites. Representatives from the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the body providing administrative support for reconstruction under the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism — an agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian governments brokered by the UN — even visit a sample of the construction sites to conduct spot checks.

You don't have to be an expert to see how easily this process could get hung up.

Hajja Fedha walks in her field where she grows a few vegetables to try to sustain herself and her family. A mountain of rubble looms in the distance.

When there’s cement but no money to buy it

Sometimes the goods don’t even make it to the construction site. There are 37,000 tons of cement sitting in warehouses in Gaza because the people to whom it is allotted don’t have the money to buy it. Cement has a shelf life of about three months — so if the funds don’t come through soon, all that would-be concrete becomes useless. The import process would have to start again from the beginning.

So far around 3,000 Gazans allotted construction materials have not yet claimed them, while another 28,000 have only taken part of their order because they can’t afford to buy it all.

“Homeowners were supposed to have received money to buy the materials but have only gotten about 5-6 percent” of what they were due, says Basil Nassar, acting head of the UNDP office in Gaza.

More from GlobalPost: Hundreds of children were killed in Gaza's war. The one's who survived are living a nightmare

“There’s no guarantee that they will have the money to buy the materials,” he says.

In desperation, some have started re-selling a portion of their materials to pay for the rest.

“The government says you have 20 kilos, so if you have no money you sell half to pay the cement seller. If you don’t take your cement now you can’t get it again,” explains Hosni Salman al-Mughani, 73, a local leader in Shejaiya, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the war.

Gazans who lost everything when their houses were shelled have competing cash needs. So they might also sell off building materials to be able to buy clothes, or beds, or a computer for their children.

The decision to sell those supplies for other necessities has lasting consequences. If those families subsequently get funding to rebuild, they have nothing to spend the money on: Having sold off their allotted materials, there’s no way to get orders assigned to them.

Palestinian children stand amid the rubble of their partially rebuilt house, on May 11, 2015, which was destroyed during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the summer of 2014, in the Eastern Gaza City Shujaiya neighborhood.

A funding crisis

Some families, like Mohamed Slama’s, cleared what rubble they could themselves and have tried to make their damaged homes livable.

Sabha Mahmoud Shamali, 52, has ten children. When her house was bombed, killing two of her grandsons, the rest of her family went to live in UN school buildings. When the academic year started they had to leave. Some rented for a while, but soon they could no longer afford it. So she took matters into her own hands.

“I had saved money for my son to get married and to go on Hajj [the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia]. With what I had saved I repaired the house myself.”

She had applied to the UN for funding, and was told she would get a call when the money arrived. In the meantime she and her family would have been homeless. She couldn’t wait that long.

Adnan Abu Hasna, spokesman for UNRWA, says he wishes families could rebuild faster, but that the UN just doesn’t have the money. He believes it’s very important not to give people false hope.

“It is a mistake to plant hopes and optimism without realities. People always ask you when you will reconstruct Gaza. You can’t talk about reconstructing Gaza,” he says. “We will do it when we have the money in our bank account. People don’t need any more frustration and disappointment. We make sure we have the money first.”

The UNRWA is in the midst of a deep funding crisis. Abu Hasna says they need another $500 million. “It’s not much compared to what was pledged,” he says bitterly. So far the agency has only had money to send the names of 86 people with fully destroyed homes to be approved by the Israelis.

In October last year, the UNRWA asked for $724 million from donor countries. It received less than $250 million, most of which went to paying rental subsidies for displaced people.

Qatar has put up the money to build 600 new housing units, and Kuwait is funding 1,000.

The black market

While the official route to rebuilding a home is failing, those who can afford it buy construction materials on the black market, where cement costs about $526 per ton, more than three times the regular price. This cement is often of poor quality, diluted with sand or other materials.

Mohamed Elian Telbani owned a conglomerate of factories that made biscuits, ice cream, juices and other pantry items. His factory burned for three days after it was bombed during the war and sustained $9 million in damages. For weeks afterward melted margarine would reignite and start small fires. Even the parts that weren’t burned were ruined by the smoke.

He has paid to rebuild most of the plant, buying all of the materials on the black market.

“I spent $3 million from my own pocket on rebuilding,” he says.

He used to have 400 workers employed full time. Now he can only afford to employ 300 people working part-time shifts.

Reconstruction not necessarily helping construction industry

Gaza’s construction industry has suffered ever since the 2007 blockade.

Many in the sector thought there might finally be work for them during the GRM period. But Gazan construction companies, like their building materials, are also subject to approval from Israel. Some who have applied are still waiting.

Waleed Khalied el-Dahdoh has run his father’s cement factory since his father was killed in 2006. His is one of the companies still waiting for permission to work.

“We used to make ready-made cement” before the blockade, he says. Without approval under the GRM there is no work at all. Occasionally someone will bring some cement, usually bought illegally, to be turned into concrete.

“I do those jobs for free just so I can run the machines, which get damaged if they’re not used,” says Dahdoh.

There are also very few bulldozers in Gaza — again, because they're “dual-use” items.

The bulldozers that are available are ancient. “They have to take long breaks between uses,” explains Mohamed Zaharna, a journalist from Gaza City.

A Palestinian works on a construction site to rebuild houses which were destroyed during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the summer of 2014, on July 22, 2015 in Gaza City's eastern suburb of Al-Shejaiya.

Donors do their own thing

As though the reconstruction process weren’t complicated enough already, there’s no one mechanism for transmitting aid money to Gaza. Each donor likes to disburse funds their own way. The Kuwaitis, for example, work through the Palestinian government. Others, like the US, like to use private contractors. The Turkish government's development agency has an office in Gaza that will oversee projects directly. Some like to distribute directly to the people in need, and others through the UN.

Between the disbursement preferences of international donors and the stringent security requirements of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, the needs of homeless Gazans end up coming in last.  

At the current rate it will take 30 years to rebuild the Strip, a senior UN official said in June.

This article is the second in a series investigating why billions of dollars pledged by the international community to rebuild Gaza following a devastating war have not been delivered. The reporting was funded by individual backers through Beacon Reader