july 1st 2011
Building materials for a clinic arrived following months of bureaucracy, writes MICHAEL JANSEN in Karm Abu Salem
THE LONG-AWAITED lorry swung out of line and made for us like a horse returning to its stable after a long journey. On the two flatbed trailers drawn by the cab was a cargo more precious to Gaza than gold.
Luke McBain, representative of medico international, broke into a broad smile as months of effort and uncertainty seemed to vanish with the delivery of the first consignment of 117 tonnes of gravel, 40 tonnes of cement and six tonnes of iron rods for the expansion and upgrading of a community clinic in Beit Hannoun in the north of the Gaza Strip.
Luke and Ahmad Alghalban from the Palestinian Medical Relief Society shook hands: mission accomplished.
Medico, a German development organisation, and the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, which is going to build the clinic, had to present documents to the Palestinian official in charge of clearing the goods. His office, a small white container with a door, windows providing through draught, a fax and photocopier, is the final address in a journey through a maze of bureaucracy.
He demanded invoices and proofs that both medico and the society were not bogus outfits trying to bring in cement and gravel to sell on the local market or build bunkers for Palestinian fighters who lob rockets into southern Israel.
He wanted the address of the secure warehouse where the material was destined to be stored, and said it could not be used until the necessary documents were in his hands.
Then he delivered a lecture on the failure of the world to recognise the plight of Gazans living under the Israeli siege and blockade.
It had taken three hours to get to this point, during which time dust raised by countless trucks laden with fruit juice from Saudi Arabia, tomato paste from Italy, plastic pipes and cement bound for UN projects enveloped everyone. Three suspenseful hours sitting with polite, blue-suited policemen who offered tea and sympathy while Luke worked his phones. For him and the Palestinian Medical Relief Society team, this was the maiden voyage with building materials so they had to learn how to navigate.
On the way back to Gaza City, Luke asked his office in Ramallah in the West Bank to speed up delivery of documents required to clear remaining cargo to the Israeli captain in charge of “co-ordination”. The second load had clearance but not the third. Papers gone astray had to be resubmitted.
Luke observed, “we never know what’s going to happen next. I am obliged to take delivery and supervise the process [of transferring the loads] but I cannot go into the terminal.”
The system, or lack of one, creates constant “insecurity”. “Co-ordination” is the magic word. But co-ordination between Palestinians and Israelis who do not speak to each other is a very difficult and delicate business.
This joint project was proposed last August.
“We did not know if we would get permits,” Luke said, referring to permission to build and to transport across Israel from one occupied territory to the other. The West Bank office of Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad co-ordinated with the ministry of planning; the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs co-ordinated the follow-up. There was no clear time frame.
The project remained in limbo until February, when permission to import building materials into Gaza was granted – “a birthday and Christmas present” combined, said Luke. More co-ordination followed.
The material was bought in Ramallah, conveyed on trucks to Betunia on the enclave’s border with Israel, and switched to Palestinian-owned lorries with Israeli plates for the journey across Israel to the crossing at the corner of the Gaza-Egyptian border with Israel.
There the precious sacks of cement and huge white plastic containers of gravel were off-loaded by forklifts in a walled cargo bay on the Gaza-Israel border. The Israeli gate closed and a gate on the Palestinian side opened. A Palestinian crew entered, loaded the material on to Israeli-sanitised Palestinian lorries, drove it to another cargo area, unloaded it and reloaded it on to lorries hired by the firm in Ramallah.
“I am obligated to send a report once the material is here and to send monthly progress reports with photos of the construction site. The warehouse is guarded by an armed guy,” Luke said.
“We’ll buy our tiles, fittings, electricity wires and cables on the local market” – all goods imported from Israel.
The UN and international and Palestinian organisations are compelled to submit to procedures dictated by Israel because it controls the only recognised access route for goods into the strip. Cement, gravel, and iron rods for construction are also smuggled through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. Of course, smuggled cement is double the price and the cost of gravel is astronomical. It is more difficult to drag through kilometre-long tunnels deep beneath the sand.
Only private citizens with means can afford to build in Gaza. Poor folk whose homes were damaged or destroyed in Israel’s 2008-09 war on Gaza live in makeshift shelters, with relatives, or rent and wait for the blockade to be lifted.
Reacting to the delivery of cement for the Beit Hannoun clinic, Palestinian Medical Relief Society head Mustafa Barghouti said, “we consider it a breakthrough. This is the first time in five years that we managed to get any construction material through. It took months. We had a lot of delays and administrative problems. We had lots of worries. Uncertainty is a way of life under occupation.”
He said it would take a “couple of months” to complete the project now that the materials were available. He hoped the breakthrough would enable other projects, particularly the main medical relief centre planned for Gaza City. The centre – to be financed by the UN Development Programme – has been designed to treat heart disease and support the disabled, and includes a clinic and pharmacy. “We have the land, now we need the [construction] material,” he added.