As donors meet in Cairo, concern that talk of rebuilding Gaza will not yield rapid action

As donors meet in Cairo, concern that talk of rebuilding Gaza will not yield rapid action

Jerusalem and Hamas want the coastal enclave rehabiliated quickly as political interests converge, but Cairo and the PA are more wary

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Members of the Palestinian Authority security forces gather around the car carrying Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on a tour to destroyed houses in an area east of the Beit Hanoun border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Members of the Palestinian Authority security forces gather around the car carrying Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on a tour to destroyed houses in an area east of the Beit Hanoun border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Adel Hana)

In theory, Gaza reconstruction and the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah could both work.

After several unity agreements between the two factions, the emotional moment finally came on Thursday as the first Palestinian unity government meeting convened in Gaza.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah even met with Ismail Haniyeh, who is already being described in Palestinian media as the “deputy head of the Hamas political wing,” and no longer as the prime minister in Gaza.

And today, in Cairo, the international convention on the reconstruction of Gaza is under way. The representatives of the donor countries and major players in the international community will be present to learn more or less where their money will go, who will ensure the funds are transferred to the correct authorities and do not fall into the hands of Gaza’s terror groups, and how all of this will be implemented.

The Palestinian Authority will present its understandings with Israel on the border crossings and Gaza reconstruction, and the halls of Cairo will be filled with optimism.

The question is what will happen in practice. The residents of the Gaza Strip, well versed in disappointment, are already sounding more cautious and realistic. A month and a half has passed since the war, and until now, nothing has changed. It’s certainly possible that in the coming days, the coastal enclave will be awash with building materials, and the reconstruction will kick into high gear. But in reality, housing construction has not yet begun, and winter is coming.

A friend in Gaza told me Saturday that houses destroyed in 2004 and 2005 by the IDF during the large campaigns in the Rafah area, on the border with Egypt, have not yet been rebuilt. In those campaigns, hundreds of homes were partly or completely demolished, and nearly 10 years later the homes have not been fixed.

In the past decade, various countries have pledged to transfer money to Gaza or to the PA on dozens of occasions, but the funds were either only partially granted or weren’t handed over at all.

So what might be different this time? It’s unclear. But Hamas and Israel share a common interest (which is not rare) in the quick rebuilding of the Gaza Strip.

For Hamas, delay in reconstruction and the non-opening of the border crossings would mean a stinging defeat in its past war with Israel. Whereas reconstruction and the opening of the borders, easing the blockade, will buttress the claim that Hamas has been making from day one of Operation Protective Edge: that it defeated Israel.

To guarantee the reconstruction, Hamas is willing to give up civil authority over the borders, and control of day-to-day life in Gaza, but under no circumstances will it give up its security measures and weapons.

The Israelis want reconstruction since it will allow for the continued implementation of the Netanyahu government’s “quiet will be met with quiet” strategy, seeking calm with no solution of the root problems, even if Gaza is not demilitarized and Hamas keeps its arms. All of which would allow Israel to buy a few months of false quiet, until the next round of fighting starts.

Meanwhile, Egypt and the PA are more problematic. They understand that the rebuilding, should it occur too quickly and without any change to Gaza’s government, will strengthen Hamas. This is seen as less problematic for Israel, which views Hamas as a business partner but PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a strategic enemy. Cairo and Ramallah are troubled by this, and will likely drag out the reconstruction process.

Another tricky factor, which is taken into account less at this point, is public opinion in Gaza. Hamas and the PA have made a mistake in the past weeks by raising hopes among the residents of Gaza. They have repeatedly thrown out promises of quick reconstruction, the openings of the border crossings, the easing of the blockade, entry to workers from Gaza for employment in Israel, and even ways to open “a safe passage” between Gaza and the West Bank.

Quite some time will pass before most of these come to fruition, if they ever do. Many of the factors in the unstable Gaza-Israel-Egypt equation are likely to change in the coming months and impair the process of reconstruction.

In the likely event of disappointment, the Gaza street will point an accusatory finger not only at Israel, the PA, and Egypt, but at Hamas as well. And the latter will likely try to quell any such dissent and protest through an escalation of hostilities against Israel. This is how it has always acted in crisis; this is what it did this past summer.

No less interesting is Israel’s relative quiet on the subject of the reconstruction. During the Gaza war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon issued many statements, but now, none of them has bothered to present to the Israeli public the government’s understandings with the PA (and indirectly, with Hamas) as regards the reconstruction. This, Israel leaves to the Palestinian side.

The Israeli public, which has been told that Hamas is the enemy, that Israel won the war, and that Netanyahu does not bow to terror, will slowly discover a slightly different and more gloomy reality: Netanyahu and the Israeli government are fairly flexible and ready to compromise with the terror organization, even after it was seemingly defeated on the battlefield by the IDF.

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