GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — June 2016 is the deadline set by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in collaboration with the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing, to complete the removal of the rubble from buildings destroyed in 2014 during the Israeli war on Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimates that 141,000 homes were completely or partially damaged, in addition to dozens of institutions, industrial installations and government buildings.
Mufeed al-Hasayneh, minister of public works and housing, told Al-Monitor that 97% of the rubble from the homes destroyed has been removed. The remaining rubble is from large buildings, such as the so-called Italian tower in the center of Gaza City, the Awda food factory in central Gaza and the Zu'rob Tower in Rafah.
Omran al-Kharroubi, manager of the UNDP's Rubble and Debris Removal project, told Al-Monitor that an estimated 1.1 million tons of rubble have been removed to allocated areas east of Rafah, in southern Gaza, and to Johr al-Deek, east of Gaza City. The rubble collected will be recycled and reused for infrastructure projects.
“The crews that worked on the ground to remove the rubble have faced numerous obstacles during their work, including the presence of suspicious objects in buildings,” Kharroubi said. “International explosive specialists removed 3,000 suspicious objects, including unexploded ordnance.”
Kharroubi added, “Other obstacles we faced involved the removal equipment required. Israel has allowed the entry of only three pieces of equipment out of a large list, following a request submitted a year ago. This forced the workers to use old and dilapidated equipment, thus delaying the project’s completion.”
A project to recycle and reuse the rubble, also funded by the UNDP, has begun, Kharroubi said, with 150,000 tons of rubble thus far having been crushed.
Osama Kahil, head of the Palestinian Contractors Union, told Al-Monitor that 40 to 50 Palestinian construction companies are participating in the rubble removal under UNDP supervision. Kahil said that about a month ago the union sent a request to Israel to import spare parts and equipment for rubble removal and to erect new buildings, but so far they have not received an answer.
“Israel claims that equipment such as bulldozers and diggers has dual uses, meaning that it can be used to remove and build buildings in addition to building military tunnels into Israel by the Palestinian resistance,” said Kahil.
Mahmoud Jehjouh and Sons, a contracting and general trading firm, submitted a bid of $550,000 to remove some of the rubble in Gaza City. The company director, Maher Jehjouh, told Al-Monitor that the UNDP program trained about 60 of his workers before the project got underway.
“Our company was able to fully remove the rubble of about 150 houses in Gaza City,” said Jehjouh. “We removed thousands of tons of rubble. The UNDP requires that extracted cement blocks not exceed 50 x 50 centimeters so that they can be crushed and converted into usable materials. We were given seven months to finish the job, but we finished it in five.”
Baha al-Agha, general director of the Environmental Protection Department, told Al-Monitor that the project has several environmental benefits because it involves a lot of recycling. Agha explained that his department, in collaboration with the UNDP and the Energy Authority, inspect the rubble to make sure that it is free from radiation that can harm people and the environment.
It will take Gaza one and a half years, with international assistance, to remove all the rubble from the war. The question now is when the reconstruction process will be finished. The process is proceeding very slowly, with $5.4 billion in pledges still outstanding. Only 3,000 houses have been constructed, during the wait for financial assistance arrive and pressure on Israel to allow the entry of construction materials. Last year Oxfam estimated that at the current rate, Gaza's reconstruction will take 100 years due to inadequate funding and ongoing siege.