The United Nations suspended construction of homes, schools and an emergency sewage system in the Gaza Strip on Monday, blaming a shortage of building materials resulting from Israel’s closure.
The move, which threatens the jobs of 121,000 Palestinians, is the latest hardship facing the poverty-stricken territory buffeted by infighting, ruled by Islamic militants and tightly controlled by Israel.
John Ging, director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, said a “huge number” of houses in refugee camps were damaged during months of clashes between Hamas and rival Fatah forces and his agency can’t repair them because it lacks building supplies. He said school repairs and construction also have fallen behind schedule, leaving children without classrooms.
“Some $93 million worth of projects are on hold because cement and other building supplies have run out,” Ging said. The agency’s construction projects employ 121,000 people, and their halt will deliver a further blow to Gaza’s depressed economy, he said.
Plenty worse off
In the southern town of Rafah, the concrete skeletons of dozens of partly finished houses rise from the sand, part of a refugee camp hard hit by Israeli military operations before 2005 and later Palestinian infighting. Construction has been halted, forcing dozens of destitute families to crowd in with relatives.
Ahmed Ashour, 44, his wife and seven children are living with his 83-year-old mother-in-law. His house in the Rafah camp was destroyed in an Israeli operation in 2003, and UNRWA was building him a new one.
“The house is supposed to be ready in March,” he said. “They began the project but it has been halted because the border has been closed.” In the meantime, he has had to move from house to house seven times, he said. “Some charities donated furniture,” Ashour said, adding, “There are plenty of people worse off.”
About 1.4 million people are jammed into Gaza, a territory 25 miles long and six miles wide with no natural resources. It is hemmed in on two sides by Israel, one side by the Egyptian Sinai desert and the other by the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants from the 1948-49 war that followed creation of Israel live in squalid shantytown camps run by UNRWA next to Gaza cities and towns. Unemployment is high even when tens of thousands are allowed to work in Israel. Now, with the borders almost totally sealed, at least 40 percent are out of work, and many others are only partially employed. Poverty is the norm.
'Only one solution'
After Hamas won an election in January 2006 and formed a government, Israel and the West cut off funds and aid, charging Hamas is a terror group. Now that Hamas has overrun Gaza, aid is being directed to the West Bank, where President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah is in control.
Ging said the shortage of building materials was the result of severely limited imports through crossings between Gaza and Israel. Since Hamas defeated Fatah forces and took control of Gaza last month, Israel has shut the crossings except for humanitarian assistance, citing security threats. That excludes vital materials such as cement.
The Israelis are aware of the crisis. Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli army unit that deals with Gaza issues, said some cement is being let in along with the emergency supplies, and other building materials would be added to the next shipment.
“I’m not pointing blame, we just need to redouble efforts,” Ging said. “There’s only one solution — to reopen the borders.”
'A disaster waiting to happen'
Businessman Ala Araj, an adviser to deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said there was enough blame to go around. “I mostly blame Israel for closing the borders completely or partially,” he said, adding he also faulted Palestinian militants for attacking the crossings. “Palestinians must avoid hitting sensitive places like borders, which offers a pretext to Israel to close them,” he said.
Sari Bashi of Gisha, a human rights group, called the border closing “collective punishment.” She said, “The rationale is to pressure Hamas ... but now it’s a quick death blow because the economy is unraveling very quickly.”
Besides the schools and homes, Ging said, the U.N. is working on an emergency waste project in northern Gaza — shoring up a huge cesspool complex where a collapse last March killed five people in a stinking wave of sewage. An even larger pool is in danger of collapsing now.
That project, Ging said, also has been halted.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. “If that goes the same way as the smaller one, it will be a bigger catastrophe.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said Monday he will meet Abbas again next week. The two men met last month in Egypt, where Olmert pledged to release 250 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to visit Israel and the West Bank next week, but it was not immediately clear whether she would take part in the Abbas-Olmert talks.