The UN's Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) is key in providing help for Gazans as they rebuild their homes. Ahead of Cairo's donor conference, DW talked to the agency's deputy director about the challenges ahead.
Scott Anderson is Deputy Director of the UNRWA's Gaza operations.
DW: Six weeks after the 52-day war, what do Gazans need right now and, with their growing needs, where is your priority to help?
Scott Anderson: The first priority is to do everything possible to get people into adequate shelter for winter. Winter is not far away, in four to six weeks the temperature will start to drop in Gaza, and first and foremost we need to provide people with adequate housing to get them through the winter. In the medium and long term what people need is hope and predictability for their lives. And most of them just need the hope that this is the last time that a conflict like this will occur.
Many Gazans are saying that help is coming only very slowly, in addition to a very uncertain political situation. What can the refugee community realistically hope for in the coming weeks?
First of all, the scale of destruction and damaged shelters far exceeded our initial estimates and expectations. During the conflict we had estimated that 20,000 homes would be inhabitable and 40,000 homes that had suffered some other sort of damage. Now after the war, we have so far visited almost 70,000 refugee homes that have been damaged, which means overall we estimate there are going to be 100,000 homes that have sustained some sort of damage as a result of the conflict. If we assume one family per home and an average family size of 6 its approximately 600,000 people who are affected. What will come out during the Cairo conference is that UNRWA is going to ask for $1,6 billion, and the bulk of this is for two things, repair and reconstruct shelters, and to do camp improvements in the eight refugee camps that exist in Gaza. The Palestinian government's overall request is somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 billion.
Aid and money is one thing, but the main problem is the lack of building material. Israel and Egypt have not opened their crossings to let materials in. So how can Gaza be rebuilt?
It will take time to mobilize the resources to do everything that is needed to rebuild Gaza, but what gives us a little bit of hope for the future is that there is now an agreement between the UN, Israel and the Palestinian government with a robust monitoring mechanism that will allow in cement in the private sector, I should say "dual-use material," into the private sector to allow people to purchase it, to repair and reconstruct their homes.
How will you choose these families among the many who need help?
We have a two step process for helping people with their shelter. The first is our social services who determine the eligibility. And what that means is one are you a refugee, and two do you own the land or the house that was damaged or destroyed. If the answers to both is yes, our engineers will come and do the technical assessment. And this can result in a few things. One is minor damage and that is mostly windows and doors, and that is widely available on the market. So we provide them with funding and they can go and fix their house. Then the others would require "dual-use" material. And that is either going to be major damage but still habitable or completely destroyed. We have assessed 15,000 homes, and within those 15,000 we are looking for 100 families as a test case. To rebuild a home is a longer process, so we try to focus on this distinct part of the population and try to show that the mechanism will work, and that "dual-use material" will be used for its intended purposes.
Israel's main concern is that building material or material they term as "dual use" will be used by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups for building tunnels and bunkers. How will this control mechanism work in practical terms?
We told the Israelis - and they recognize that - that they will not be able to verify down to the last bag of cement, it is not possible. What they are concerned about is material disappearance at a scale to rebuild the tunnels. A bag of cement here, a bag of cement there, it will take 100 years to have enough cement to rebuild some of the tunnels that were destroyed during the conflict. Let's say you have this room and three rooms are knocked down, that is like 30 square meters of cement and we have agreed with Israel and the Palestinians that every square meter requires so much cement and so much aggregate and so much steel. You multiply that by 30 and roughly that is what I need to rebuild the three walls. The part that is going to be more difficult is saying my home that was destroyed was 100 square meters, I have been saving because my son is getting married and I have another son behind him and I want to build 300 square meters. So how are we going to solve this? I think this has to be linked to the building permit and the design through the municipality.
Some critics among Gaza's civil society and the private sector say that the new reconstruction deal brokered by UN special envoy Robert Serry could institutionalize the blockade imposed by Israel under the name of the UN or the Palestinian Authority.
We have called continuously for the blockade to be lifted. That is not going to happen in one step. We are not going to from where we are now to no blockade at all. There have to be serious steps. And the Palestinian Authority coming back to control the crossing is a big step, and what I've been told is that if the PA does take control, than everything will be on the table, exports and transfers to the West Bank, working permits for people from Gaza in Israel, so the benefits for the people of Gaza and of Palestine will be significant if they have one government representing them. I would suspect that the number of people that would be denied assistance will be very few, and if they are denied assistance from the PA, there will be other organizations who will provide assistance.
So given all these difficult circumstances, what is your outlook for the people of Gaza?
It is the third conflict, there is the blockade, there are no jobs, they can't move. I grew up in the middle of the United States, in Iowa, and there were no jobs, so I moved to where there were jobs. And people here they don't have this option. What people need more than anything is hope. For example I am told potentially there are 1,000 permits for people to work in Israel, that would be a significant development to start the process, if we can get some economic growth. It will be a long process because the economy is just about destroyed, and people's ability to cope and their resilience have certainly diminished over the last seven years. But I think there is not a more resilient population that I have come across than in Gaza and I think they can recover, but they just need some help.