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Who is accountable for Gaza reconstruction?

The latest war in Gaza brought not only vast human suffering but devastation to its already pummelled built environment. Yet UN-sponsored reconstruction is proving agonisingly slow.

Joanna E. Springer
18 December 2014
un school.jpg

A Palestinian student inspects the damage to a UN school in Jabalia refugee camp hit by an Israeli attack on 30 July, killing at least 16 civilians. Flickr / United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.

For weeks, the growing din of criticism, media coverage and protest surrounding the United Nations’ failure to get the rebuilding of Gaza off the ground has met a resounding silence.

Palestinians have been left without details or timelines, while the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, tweaks the mechanism for reconstruction he agreed with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in mid-October. On 11 December Serry promised delivery of materials to repair one-fifth of the estimated 100,000 homes destroyed or damaged in the summer war—yet without addressing the role of Israel in the delays of the preceding two months.

Closer scrutiny reveals that the design and handling of the arrangement itself fall short of fundamental principles of good governance. Key to this failure is dependence on Israel to operate “in good faith”, despite the blockade of Gaza remaining in place.

In an attempt to work around Israel’s barriers to reconstruction, the Serry mechanism effectively subcontracts enforcement of the blockade to the UN. Complicated procedures and technically involved monitoring mechanisms contribute to delays, while Israel retains the right to approve or reject applications case-by-case. It took a month and a half after the agreement was reached for the second shipment of building materials for the private sector to arrive in Gaza.

Standards of good governance, embedded in international agreements such as the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda and the Fragile States Principles, should help remove obstacles to effective aid placed by powerful spoilers. In Gaza, the UN and Israel are the two most powerful actors administering reconstruction. Hamas and the PA, mired in squabbles over the formation of a consensus government, have little capacity to meet Israeli demands.

Four principles failed

The Serry mechanism, intended to overcome these obstacles in order to start rebuilding before winter, has so far failed the following four principles of good governance:—

Transparency: Those affected by the mechanism should have access to information on the specifics of the arrangement, as well as the status of its implementation. But details of the mechanism were only leaked following a closed, high-level briefing on 14 October. Moreover, Palestinians lack information on the UN’s proposed course of action in response to the mechanism’s evident failure—and have been left waiting in suspense as to when they can secure building materials.

Accountability: No means are apparent to ensure Israel fulfils its responsibilities under the UN arrangement; nor did the agreement require it to accelerate the entry of building materials into Gaza. The donor agencies utilising the Serry mechanism have not complained about their resources getting mired in the black box of Israel’s security concerns. This passive stance permits reconstruction activities to be held hostage by one party—overwhelmingly the stronger—to the conflict.

Responsiveness: Aid should be responsive to need, rather than identity or affiliation; priority should be placed on helping the most vulnerable. But heavy surveillance of supplicants and the requirement to provide detailed personal information may deter individuals (and their families) who have been detained by the Israelis at any point in the past or are affiliated with Hamas. Further, Israel is permitted to deny access to building materials on the basis of its own political criteria.

Effectiveness: If the Serry mechanism were effective, it would facilitate rebuilding with a minimum of delays, ideally improving on previous systems. Donors have past experience with the obstacles imposed by Israel’s strategy of reserving the right to make decisions case-by-case and at the last minute. Unfortunately, the new mechanism relies on the flawed assumption that there exists a will to co-operate on Israel’s part. In point of fact, it has manipulated the arrangement to advance its own end of increased control over Gaza.

Dire consequences

Delays and bureaucratic red tape have dire consequences for Palestinians facing winter without adequate shelter, leading to an emergency situation in Gaza. The UN mechanism’s lack of transparency aggravates the situation, contributing to a tense political environment.

From the ground, a return to conflict may appear to be the only alternative. The UN urgently needs to rethink its strategy—from one of co-operation with the blockade to holding Israel accountable for the crisis in Gaza.

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