GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Khalil Muttair and the six construction workers he has employed for 11 years have not taken on any construction projects over the last seven months, as the construction sector in the Gaza Strip has been deteriorating for years.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Muttair attributed this crippling situation to several factors, most notably the stalemate in urban construction because of the financial crises plaguing the Gaza Strip in light of the Palesitnian Authority's inability to pay the full salaries of government employees. Young couples, for instance, prefer to rent prefabricated apartments that cost between $150 and $300 per month, because they are unable to buy a house.
On July 8, the Palestinian Contractors Union (PCU) in the Gaza Strip announced the opening up of the construction market in a number of Arab countries to Palestinian contractors and companies.
The PCU is a nongovernmental organization established in 1994 that unites local contractors and supports Palestinian construction companies in Palestine and abroad by encouraging competition among these companies.
PCU head Osama Kahil told Al-Monitor, “The PCU has succeeded in opening up the construction market in Jordan, Syria and Iraq to Palestinian companies and contractors.”
Kahil headed a PCU delegation at the 13th International Exhibition and 2nd International Forum for Building, Construction and Engineering Industries held in Amman on June 25-27, where they discussed this matter with the Arab Contractors Union and contractors' unions in Iraq, Jordan and Syria.
He explained that the aim behind the move is to create jobs for Palestinian contractors abroad, in light of the scarcity of local opportunities, as there are about 300 construction companies in the Gaza Strip.
"The heads of these unions have responded to our request to open up the construction markets in their countries to work with Palestinian construction companies and unanimously agreed to give Palestinian companies priority to take over construction projects that are being proposed in their countries,” Kahil said.
He noted that head of the Iraqi Contractors Federation Ali Fakher Sanafi invited Palestinian companies and contractors to visit Iraq in order to get to know the Iraqi construction market and make bids.
Kahil said the PCU and representatives of the Palestinian construction companies will accept Sanafi’s invitation and visit Iraq in August, adding, "Palestinian construction companies have extensive experience in construction, especially as they have taken over the reconstruction of Gaza and the removal of rubble following the repeated Israeli wars."
Muttair views the opening up of the construction market in these Arab countries to Palestinian contractors as “a golden opportunity that cannot be missed in light of the scarcity of construction projects in Gaza."
He added, “I discussed the idea with my team and they are ready to travel to Iraq, or even Syria. There is an urgent need for contractors in Syria today [as the reconstruction process is expected to begin] after most cities were destroyed in the yearslong war."
A study published May 9 on the construction industry in the Gaza Strip, conducted by the Industrial Modernization Center of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, revealed a decline of 42% in the number of workers in this sector, reaching 1,840 workers compared to 3,168 workers last year.
The same study showed that the construction and contracting sector in Gaza is operating today at a capacity of only 15%, due to the continuation of the Israeli siege since 2007. During the last war on Gaza in 2014, Israel destroyed over 350 industrial facilities and 100 facilities affiliated with the construction sector, such as iron and brick factories.
The risk of further destruction of industrial and construction facilities in the Gaza Strip in any new war is the main motivation for contractors to work abroad. Rifaat Mhanna, who owns Mhanna and Brothers Company for Contracting and Construction Materials and a stone quarry in the industrial zone in the east of Gaza City, is eager to work in the Arab construction market.
"During the war in 2014, Israeli warplanes bombed my company and quarry turning them into a pile of rubble, and 34 of my workers were left without a job," Mhanna told Al-Monitor. "Despite my success in rebuilding my company and quarry a year and a half ago, I fear that it could be bombed and destroyed again as chances of a new war between the resistance in Gaza and Israel are growing."
He noted, “Opening the Arab construction market to Palestinian companies will reduce unemployment in this sector, and most of the Palestinian contractors have extensive experience in construction outside the Palestinian territories, since they have been working in construction inside Israel for many years.”
Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Israel has imposed restrictions on workers from the Gaza Strip preventing some 40,000 Gazan workers from working inside Israel.
Kahil explained that the PCU is currently developing mechanisms to export the Palestinian construction industry to Jordan, Syria and Iraq by building diverse partnerships with local construction companies and offering expertise and speed in construction projects.
Mouin Rajab, a professor of economics at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Opening the construction market in these Arab countries to Palestinian companies will contribute to stopping the permanent migration of the Palestinian construction companies.”
He stressed that allowing Palestinian construction companies to work in Arab countries would allow for the recovery of the construction sector in the Gaza Strip and lead to a greater contribution to the Palestinian gross domestic product (GDP). Before the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, the construction sector accounted for 33% of GDP, while today it does not exceed 20%, he added.
According to Rajab, allowing Palestinian construction workers to find work abroad would contribute to a reduction in unemployment rates, which reached 52% in the Gaza Strip in 2018, according to statistics published July 10 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
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