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Why young Gazans need cement to get married

In an attempt to curb the use of cement in tunnels Hamas has been building to attack Israelis, Israel restricts the importation of cement to Gaza, limiting the possibilities for many young people in Gaza to build homes.

While everybody has been focusing their attention on the violent uprising in the West Bank, the situation in the Gaza Strip has been glossed over and its residents forgotten. However, the constant shortage of electric power continues, with intermittent outages occurring throughout most of the day. Water supply is also sporadic, and what flows through the pipes is mostly not potable. Most water wells in the Gaza Strip have become either saline or contaminated. Private companies, which purify water and sell and distribute it in large containers to households, are making a bundle.

Additionally, there is a serious shortage of medical equipment and drugs in hospitals. Unemployment is rampant, with some saying it stands at a whopping 45%. Human rights organizations contend that joblessness has reached 50% or even higher. Yet, accurate figures are not needed: Most young people in Gaza who are not employed in one of Hamas’ governmental institutions are out of a job and feel despair.

But the most acute problem is the housing shortage. As a result of Israel’s policy on cement imports, the closure of the Rafah crossing, the destruction of the smuggling tunnels by the Egyptians and the heavy damage inflicted to buildings and infrastructures in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, prices for apartments have skyrocketed. Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the introduction of building materials into the Gaza Strip for fear that Hamas would seize them in order to build tunnels. The restrictions on the transfer of raw materials — mainly cement and iron (rebar) — first began when the blockade was imposed in 2007. However, they were ratcheted up when Hamas’ tunnel enterprise came to light. Israel’s concerns are therefore not unfounded. Hamas’ military wing — the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — has taken steps to rebuild the tunnels destroyed by Egypt and Israel. So once again, it is the residents who are paying the price for those stringent restrictions. Officials from human rights organizations in the Gaza Strip told Al-Monitor that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 young adults between the ages of 20 and 35 who have chosen not to get married because of the housing shortage. There is no way one can get married and start a family without having a place to live, especially when the young people's parents are also grappling with the same problem.

“I want my son to marry,” said an old friend of mine from Gaza who did not want his name used. “But without my building him a housing unit, there’s no way he can get married. And it doesn’t seem there’s going to be any change for the better in the foreseeable future.”

My Gazan friend told me about the long process that every person in the Gaza Strip has to go through when contemplating building a house, adding a room or building an annex for a family member. That is assuming that they have the money to do it. 

Paradoxically, the oversight of the import of raw materials from Israel, especially cement, occurs through indirect cooperation between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and Israel.

This is how it works: First, one has to go to Hamas’ Ministry of Economics and inform the authorities that the applicant intends to build or renovate a house. That person has to declare that he needs building materials from Israel — mainly rebar and cement. At the time of the application, a fee of 100 Israeli shekels ($26) has to be paid to Hamas’ Ministry of Economics. At the next stage, a municipal inspection team visits the site where the house is to be built or expanded. It does all the land surveying to determine the required quantity of cement that is needed for only one stage of the planned construction. A GPS device is used to determine the exact coordinates of the construction site. The GPS information is then handed over to the Israel Defense Forces liaison unit for review, providing Israel with a tool for supervising future work at the construction site. Thanks to this oversight mechanism, which was developed and perfected ever since the blockade on Gaza was imposed and especially after the unearthing of the tunnels, Israel has accurate information on just about every ounce of cement from the moment it passes through the Kerem Shalom crossing until its arrival at the designated construction site. Additionally, Israel oversees the quantity of cement and rebar that is required for a reasonable quality of construction.

Collecting a handling charge of 300 shekels, a Gaza municipal team should then transfer the application as well as the recommended quantity for delivery to PA representatives, headed by a Fatah official, Nasser al-Sarraj. Those representatives are staying in Gaza, coordinating the supply of cement with Israel and UNRWA.

Even if approved, the request for the supply of raw materials is good for only the first stage of the construction process. First, a request for laying the foundations has to be submitted. Then, for each additional stage — framing the house, plastering it and doing the finishing work — the entire process must be gone through again — all told about five or six times. Each construction stage may last from several weeks to up to several months and the resident is required to wait after each stage.

It is no wonder that prices have shot up. An average rental apartment in an average location in the Gaza Strip starts at $250, whereas the monthly median income — for those who are lucky enough to have a job — is about $500 or less.

Much has been said and written lately about the despair of young people in the West Bank who have launched an intifada. Yet compared with them, the situation of their counterparts in the Gaza Strip is much more serious. The Israeli defense establishment is well aware of their predicament, realizing that in the end it will exact a bloody price.

How long can the “Gaza powder keg” remain unprimed? Apparently not for much longer. Israel is not the only one to blame. In playing with the lives of the residents of Gaza, all political parties associated with the Gaza Strip are to blame: Hamas, Israel and the PA.

Meanwhile, as noted, the distress of some 1.8 million residents in the Gaza Strip is of interest to almost no one. And therein lies the great danger. Abu Ali Shahin (aka Abdul-Aziz Sahin), who died about two years ago but long was the patron of Palestinian prisoners, once vividly described to me the characteristics of the Gaza Strip. “Gaza,” he said, “is like a pot of milk on the stove. The milk looks white, pure and quiet — almost serene — and then, in a split second, it boils over.” 

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