1:21am

Thu October 3, 2013
Middle East

Israel Eases Restriction On Building Materials To Gaza Strip

Originally published on Sun October 6, 2013 7:05 am

Israel eased a major restriction on the Gaza Strip last week. For the first time in six years, limited commercial shipments of cement and iron were allowed through Israel into Gaza.

The 70 trucks per weekday will barely put a dent in the need in Gaza, where demand for housing is high and construction work is a quick way to cut unemployment. But it is a significant decision for Israel, connected to larger strategic issues, including the upheaval in neighboring Egypt and the recently restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For the past several years, much of the cement and rebar that came to Gaza arrived through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. Israel allowed only materials for thoroughly documented humanitarian projects, fearing militants would use concrete and rebar to build bunkers.

But after the Egyptian military took control in Cairo three months ago, Egypt began systematically destroying the tunnels. Construction materials in Gaza became hard to get, making an already weak economy worse.

A Peaceful Gesture

Guy Inbar, the spokesman for the Israeli military unit that manages all goods going between Israel and Gaza, says the change in policy came due to a request by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

"We hope the people in the Gaza Strip will understand that Abu Mazen and the situation in the West Bank is better than what is happening right now with Hamas," Inbar says.

Abbas leads the Palestinian political party Fatah and rules the West Bank. He is also negotiating with Israel for a peace deal. As part of these negotiations, and under international pressure, Israel has made several gestures to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians and to support Abbas.

The Palestinian faction Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is an enemy of Israel. It is also in bad economic shape. Hamas has so little money it paid only half salaries for August, and those came a month late, says Ghazi Hamad, Gaza's deputy foreign minister. He says Hamas is just trying to keep its head above water.

"The main two problems [are] the building materials and the fuel," Hamad says.

Messy Consequences

Cheap Egyptian gas used to flow through the smuggling tunnels, too. Now, Hamas is trying to negotiate a deal with the Palestinian Authority to pay part of the cost of fuel from Israel. Everything in Gaza is affected by the current fuel shortage — even sewage.

From a bluff above the Mediterranean, you can see brown wastewater from Gaza's homes and streets rush out of a wide concrete pipe, right next to fishermen casting nets into the surf. Get a little closer and you'll smell it.

For years, sporadic electricity and a lack of facilities meant plenty of untreated sewage went into the ocean. But the director of the local water utility, Monthar Shoblak, says up until this fuel crisis, things had measurably improved. Now he's back to Plan C, or perhaps more appropriately, Plan Sea.

"Plan A is to treat it," Shoblak says. "Plan B is to dump it partially treated."

Plan C means he'll be lucky just to get sewage diverted to the ocean before it backs up the pipes, or worse yet, overflows into streets and homes.

As already difficult life gets even a bit tougher in Gaza, a few signs of discontent with the current rule are showing. One is a group called Tamarod, or rebellion. That's the same name as an Egyptian group that helped bring down the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo.

Hamas itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Gazan novelist and political science professor Atef Abu Saif says Hamas, however, is not going away. "Their practice and behavior and political translations of their ideas are extremely bad," says Abu Saif, who is a Fatah supporter. "But they will always find supporters. You have to think how to include them and affect the way they behave."

Abu Saif says the Palestinian Authority hopes a weakened Hamas will eventually disappear, but he says Hamas won't vanish.

"You have to think how to include them and affect the way they behave. You have to offer them a hand," he says.

At this point, even Hamas admits it needs one.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Easy to miss this in the crush of other news, but it's a big deal: Israel eased a major restriction on the Gaza Strip last month. For the first time in six years, commercial shipments of cement and iron were allowed through Israel into Gaza. It turns out there's a lot of meaning in cement. This shift is connected to larger strategic issues, both the upheaval in neighboring Egypt and the recently restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace process. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Gazans putting up an apartment building this summer had worked only when construction materials were available. For several years, cement and rebar came to Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. But after the Egyptian military took control in Cairo three months ago, Egypt began systematically destroying those tunnels. Construction materials in Gaza became hard to get, making an already weak economy worse. Enter Israel.

GUY INBAR: The situation in Gaza right now, Israel has decided to approve this entrance of building materials. We are talking about 70 truckloads per day.

HARRIS: Guy Inbar is spokesman for the Israeli military unit that manages everything moving legally between Israel and Gaza. Commercial construction materials had long been banned because Israel feared militant groups would use the cement and iron to build bunkers. What's allowed in now is a tiny fraction of what's needed. But Inbar says Israel decided to open the doors at all because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked. Abbas is also known as Abu Mazen.

INBAR: And we hope the people in the Gaza Strip will understand that Abu Mazen and the situation in the West Bank is better than what's happening right now with Hamas.

HARRIS: President Abbas leads the Palestinian political party Fatah, and rules the West Bank. He is also negotiating with Israel for a peace deal. As part of these negotiations, and under international pressure, Israel has made several gestures to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians and to support Abbas. The Palestinian faction Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is in worse economic shape. It has so little money, it paid only half salaries for August, and those came a month late. Ghazi Hamad is Gaza's deputy foreign minister.

GHAZI HAMAD: We try to use a policy and just to prevent the water to reach our nose. The main two problems is the building materials and the fuel.

HARRIS: Hamas is trying to negotiate a deal with the Palestinian Authority to pay part of the cost of fuel from Israel to replace the supplies of cheap Egyptian gas used that used to come through the tunnels. Everything in Gaza is affected by the current fuel shortage, even sewage.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

HARRIS: Stinky wastewater from Gazan homes rushes out of a wide, concrete pipe, straight into the Mediterranean Sea. For years, sporadic electricity and a lack of facilities meant plenty of untreated sewage went into the ocean. But director of the local water utility, Monthar Shoblak, says up until this fuel crisis, things had measurably improved. Now he's back to his sewage last resort: just move it into the Mediterranean before it overflows on land.

MONTHAR SHOBLAK: I call it Plan C. Plan A is to treat it. Plan B is to dump it partially treated. And Plan C, meaning that my good luck will be if I will manage to bring the sewage from the streets, homes, to be diverted to the sea.

HARRIS: As already difficult life gets even a bit tougher in Gaza, a few signs of discontent with the current rule are showing. One is a group called Tamarod, or rebellion, the same name as an Egyptian group that helped bring down the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo. Hamas itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. But Gazan novelist and political science professor Atef Abu Saif says Hamas is not going away.

ATEF ABU SAIF: Their practice and behavior and the political translations of their ideas are extremely bad. But they will always find supporters, unfortunately. You have to think how to include them and to affect the way they behave. You have to offer them a hand.

HARRIS: At this point, even Hamas admits it needs one. Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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