Farid Batch and his brother Wasfi live about 500m from their old houses in Jabalia, north Gaza. The homes of four Batch brothers once stood next to each other overlooking a grove of olive and lemon trees but all that is left are the concrete foundations and a tangle of wire and metal.
Since the orchards and all four houses were levelled during Israel’s last military operation in Gaza, two years ago in January, Farid and Wasfi have been living in neighbouring apartments in a large residential block. Their rent is paid by one-off grants from the Ministry of Public Works in Gaza and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), but from January, they will have to cover the cost themselves.
Wasfi recently found a job driving an ambulance for 1,400NIS (US$387) a month and thinks he will be able to afford to rent a place for his family of 11.
Farid, an unemployed carpenter and father of seven, has no idea where his family will be living from January.
“I owned my home and the 600m of land it stood on. When I have the money, I’ll rebuild it but there is no money in Gaza now,” Farid said. “All the building material we need is here but the gravel, cement and steel that come through the tunnel from Egypt are about 10 times the prices before the blockade. Without money, I can’t think about rebuilding.”
Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas came into power.
It has been six months since this blockade was eased following international pressure on the Israeli government. While imports into Gaza have increased and exports of Gazan strawberries and carnations are slowly resuming, only a fraction of the material needed to rebuild the homes and infrastructure is coming through the border from Israel, according to various reports.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its November Humanitarian Update that although the relaxation of the blockade had resulted in a greater variety of consumer goods available in the markets, with consumer items making up the majority (72 percent) of imported goods, ongoing restrictions on basic construction materials, impediments to the movement of people as well as exports, continued to limit both economic revival and a significant improvement in the humanitarian situation.
“Critically needed housing reconstruction projects and upgrades to damaged infrastructure continue to be limited by restrictions on the entry of basic construction materials, particularly cement, gravel and steel bars,” OCHA said.
Before the blockade, consumer items accounted for 45 percent of all imports, and construction materials the balance, according to OCHA.
The report said additional steps were needed to more broadly reactivate Gaza’s crippled economy and restore livelihoods. “Such steps must include lifting the internal access restrictions on land and sea and the removal of restrictions on the import of building materials.”
In the meantime, construction materials smuggled from Egypt are used for limited rebuilding in the strip.
In early December, Gaza’s Ministry of Public Works re-opened a high-rise block with 36 flats, not far from where the Batch brothers now live in East Jabalia.
Neil Jebb, who leads the UN’s shelter cluster in Gaza, said: “From 20 June to now, a lot more glass, doors, windows and bathroom fittings have been coming through from Israel but they are little good without walls. If you’ve lost your home and you’re poor, the easing of the blockade has had almost no impact.”
The Israeli government has approved only 7 percent of the building plans for UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) projects in Gaza, including schools, medical centres and housing units.
Restrictions applied by European and American donors on international agencies forbidding the use of materials brought through the tunnels mean UN agencies are powerless to rebuild the homes of thousands of vulnerable families.
Jebb says the blockade is having a greater negative impact on the international agencies in Gaza than on Hamas.
“I’m not very optimistic donors will change their policies – we could be two to three years down the line without any change in our access to basic building materials. As long as these donor policies are in place, the Ministry of Public Works will lead the reconstruction effort using material from Egypt.”
For Farid Batch, and thousands of others whose homes are still in ruins, whether bricks and steel come from Egypt or Israel, Hamas or the UN, is irrelevant. His urgent priority is finding somewhere for his family to live. “The most basic human need is to have a roof over your head but I have no idea if we will have a home in January. This is a crisis.”