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Gazans ready to rebuild, but key materials are not allowed in

While truckloads of food and other goods have come to Gaza, the materials for the Strip's reconstruction, promised in the ceasefire agreement, remain elusive
Palestinians return to their homes in Shejaiya neighbourhood after the declaration of a ceasefire between Palestinian resistance factions and Israel, in Gaza city, on 27 August (AA)

RAFAH - The moment Mounir al-Ghalban heard about the ceasefire conditions, he called all his staff members on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing to come back to work.

Soon trucks heaped with goods and some humanitarian aid heaved into the war-torn Gaza Strip. But al-Ghalban is still waiting for desperately needed construction materials and there is no sign they will come anytime soon. 

Plastic chairs, soft drinks, candy, cans of food, shoes and toilet paper: al-Ghalban counts off all of the items coming through the Rafah crossing, but these aren't the only things Gazans needs, he says.

Gazans like Abu Khaled al-Jammal are waiting for bags of cement. 

Several years ago, al-Jammal lost his home when Israeli missiles struck it. With financing from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), he moved into another home two years ago.

This month, that house sustained minor damage from Israeli tank shells.

And now, instead of waiting for help from international organisations and governments, al-Jammal said he wants cement to fix the damage - and the damage on the homes of friends and family - on his own.

“By waiting for the international community’s response, my children will suffer the next 10 winters,” he said. “Yes, the ceasefire is a good thing, it ends slaughtering us, but we want to rebuild our homes. I can’t watch my children freezing cold when winter kicks in.”

After seven weeks of the deadliest attacks on Gaza, he heard in the news that construction materials would come. Since Tuesday, when the ceasefire was declared, he has been waiting for al-Ghalban to announce that building materials have arrived.  

At the busy Kerem Shalom border, Abu Ahmed Siam, a truck driver, stood in a dusty area filled with trucks. The situation at the crossing has become "slightly easier" since the ceasefire, he said, and some items restricted by the Israelis have been allowed in again.

“We got aid trucks from the West Bank, WFP (World Food Programme), and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency),” he said, as one of his colleagues waved to him with a new truck entering with fruit for Gazan merchants.

Siam said school stationary, too, has been allowed in, but the timing was bittersweet: schools in Gaza were due to start last week, but have been postponed for two more weeks until UNRWA and government schools are able to find shelter for homeless families who have been living inside classrooms and sports clubs.

Seven weeks ago, only fuel and some humanitarian aid came across this crossing. Now commercial goods are entering for the first time, many everyday items like milk, cheese and diapers that Gaza's emptied out stores need. But not any cement.

“Nothing came through, as far as building materials are concerned,” Siam told Middle East Eye.

Building materials and raw materials have been on Israel’s ban list since 2006. Banned items include cement, steel and concrete. Israel held the position that these items could be used by Gazan military groups to build military sites. 

For years, Gaza has relied on tunnels to get the building materials in. Now the majority of tunnels have been sealed by the Egyptian military in an attempt to crush Hamas, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last December, after the coup that ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt declared the group a terrorist organisation. 

In Cairo, Israeli negotiators agreed to ease restrictions on the border and allow materials in for the reconstruction of Gaza. Al-Ghalban was under the impression that this would start immediately. But it has not.

“Now everyone is waiting for construction materials,” he said. ”This is Gaza’s immediate need.” 

Al-Ghalban said that during the war, Israel allowed the entry of 200 trucks, but in fact, being the most densely populated place in the world, Gaza needs 600 trucks per day.

According to Israeli human rights group Gisha, from June 2007 until June 2010, an average of 2,400 trucks per month entered Gaza from Israel, compared to 10,400 trucks per month that entered Gaza in 2005.

Kerem Shalom is supposed to be used for the export of agricultural products, herbs and furniture. According to Gisha, since March 2012, in an exception to the rule, 55 truckloads of goods have exited Gaza for the West Bank and Israel: 49 truckloads of date bars for a World Food Program project and four truckloads of school desks and chairs ordered by the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank, plus two truckloads of palm fronds to Israel.

“During the months January - July 2014, an average of 12 truckloads of goods exited Gaza each month, or less than one percent of what exited monthly prior to 2007,” Gisha wrote in The Gaza Cheat Sheet, on 19 August.

Kerem Shalom is next door to the Rafah crossing, where hundreds of passengers are waiting to leave Gaza. But Egypt does not grant permission to those passengers trying to travel through Gaza’s point of exit. During the past seven weeks of war, Egypt closed the crossing, with exception to those holding foreign and Egyptian passports, as well as scores of wounded people and those holding resident permits.

The Rafah crossing is not part of the ceasefire deal signed in Cairo last week. Egyptian officials refused to negotiate the matter with Palestinian factions at the truce talks with the Israelis, stating that this was an Egyptian-Palestinian matter.

The Rafah terminal arrival, departure and VIP halls are still functioning, despite Israeli airstrikes on the crossing last week. The head of border crossings, Maher Abu Sabha, said “We want to challenge [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu by keeping the crossing open, despite damage.”

Among the crowds waiting were students whose universities started abroad while they were trapped in Gaza. Others need medical attention, but they were waiting too.

“It is a crossing supposed to be for Palestinians, and they (Egyptians) are only allowing foreigners,” said 21-year old Amjad Yousef, while waiting in the summer sun. Yousef came to Gaza after two years away, studying in Morocco. He planned to stay for a month, but the war has kept him in Gaza for two. 

“I don’t want to enter Egypt. Escort me direct to my flight from Cairo to Morocco,” he said.

Next to Yousef, a cancer patient is standing. She has all of the papers required to cross, including a certificate from the Palestinian Health Ministry explaining that she can no longer be treated at any of the local hospitals which have largely collapsed after heavy bombardment over the past month. 

Yousef expressed disappointment with the ceasefire deal, saying, “We were hoping that the treatment would change and humiliation at crossings would end.”

“This is why, I will support Palestinian resistance demands until we get our own airports.”

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