Mayuri Mukherjee

After the conflict in Gaza ended last month, many wondered which side had won and which side had lost. Others asked, and rightly so, if there were any winners or losers at all. On the one hand, exuberant leaders of Hamas, the internationally designated terror organisation that holds power in Gaza, suddenly appeared from their underground bunkers to rejoice that their resistance had succeeded. On the other hand, Israeli leaders, facing severe international criticism for responding in a supposedly disproportionate manner to rocket fire from Hamas, claimed that the group’s military capabilities had been dealt a severe blow, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself seemed unsure if deterrence had been re-established. Still, when the Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire came into effect on August 26, almost everybody heaved a sigh of relief.
The deal in itself was a modest one: While the Palestinians agreed to hold their fire, Israel agreed to open its border crossings into Gaza (which were open through much of the war anyway), permit a larger number of trucks to move in with goods and relief material everyday, reduce its security buffer from 300metres to 100metres, and allow Gazan fishermen to venture six miles off the coast instead of just three miles. None of these are major concessions; they are confidence building measures at best.
The big issues for both sides -for the Palestinians, building a sea port and an airport in Gaza and the release of security prisoners; and for the Israelis, the demilitarisation of Gaza – will come up for discussion, only if the current ceasefire arrangement holds for a month.
Three weeks in, the situation has been remained largely peaceful, allowing for discussions on the reconstruction of Gaza. The strip was effectively flattened during the 51 days of fighting this summer. According to UN and Palestinian estimates, 20,000 homes were destroyed and another 40,000 damaged; half of Gaza’s hospitals were damaged, nine are still closed; it’s sole power plant has only just started functioning again, 360 factories have been damaged and 126 completely destroyed; 22 schools destroyed and an estimated 188 damaged; and 35,000 dunams of agricultural land affected. Also,1,00,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are still internally displaced, 40 per cent lack access to running water, and 18 hour long power cuts are the norm.
On Tuesday, the UN announced that it had brokered an agreement to rebuild this tiny Mediterranean strip. The deal is designed to repair the damage caused during the conflict and also initiate the process of long-term development in Gaza. International donors are already lining up to contribute to the reconstruction plan and finalise its delivery mechanism. Two important meetings have been scheduled: The first in New York on September 22 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and the second in Cairo on October 12. If past experiences are anything to go by, there should be no shortage of funds. However, the question is who will put them to use and how.
The initial signs are ominous. The day the UN’s Middle East envoy Richard Serry announced the formalisation of the plan to the Security Council, there was mortar fire in to southern Israel for the first time since the war ended. While Hamas has denied any role in this, the firing is a grim reminder of how fragile the ceasefire agreement really is and how easily the situation can deteriorate. But even if the peace holds, implementing the reconstruction programme will be easier said than done.
The biggest roadblock here is Hamas’ control over Gaza. Because the group is a designated terrorist organisation, many donor nations cannot legally work with it. Also, as long as a group like Hamas that does not even recognise Israel’s right to exist holds power, there are few chances for an enduring peace deal. This makes donors rightfully sceptical of investing in the reconstruction of Gaza as it will quite possibly be reduced to rubble yet again. Finally, the international community cannot reward Hamas, which has provoked war and brought death and destruction upon its own people, with billions of dollars in aid that it can wilfully distribute among impoverished Gazans (or, more likely, use to buy missiles and rockets and build more terror tunnels into Israel).