Six months after the end of hostilities, reconstruction of homes is yet to start.
During February, Israel extended the withholding of the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the third successive month in retaliation for Palestinian accession to the International Criminal Court. The potential destabilizing effect of this decision is a major concern since these revenues constitute some 70 per cent of the PA's budget.
To date the PA has been forced to partially suspend the payment of salaries for public employees in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and cut expenditure on services, with its ability to maintain law and order being undermined. Moreover, the cuts in salaries and expenditures are having a direct and indirect impact on the Palestinian economy, which has contracted in 2014 for the first time since 2006, further threatening the livelihoods of the most vulnerable.
In the Gaza Strip, the frustration generated by the salary crisis is exacerbated by the lack of any visible progress in the reconstruction of homes destroyed or severely damaged during the summer hostilities. Around 100,000 displaced people are still living in very precarious conditions. Although approximately 58,000 families have so far purchased restricted building materials through the temporary Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), virtually all of these cases involved homes requiring repairs rather than complete reconstruction. As of the end of February, no housing reconstruction project has yet been implemented on the ground, primarily due to the slow pace of disbursement of pledges by donors made during the Cairo Conference in October 2014, and compounded by delays in the clearance of projects.
Underfunding of humanitarian programmes is also worrying. As of the end of February, only one fifth of the humanitarian appeal for 2015 was funded, with over 60 per cent of the funds received destined for UNRWA. This funding pattern generates potential discrepancies in the scope of assistance provided to refugees as opposed to non-refugees. Humanitarian assistance, including transitional shelter for those displaced during hostilities, is a much-needed stabilizing element in Gaza.
Additionally, February saw the start of infrastructure works in a section of Al Jabal, in the Jerusalem periphery - one of three sites designated for the “relocation” of Palestinian Bedouins in the central West Bank, which can accommodate approximately 50 families. The UN Secretary-General has warned that this “relocation” plan would amount to forcible transfer under international humanitarian law if implemented.
On a positive note, Israel announced a series of measures aimed at easing access restrictions in and out of Gaza, including a rise in the quota of exit permits for Palestinian merchants and approval, in principle, for the transfer of textiles and furniture to the West Bank for commercial purposes. This follows similar measures announced in October 2014. While these easings are welcome, the exit of goods from Gaza remains severely restricted and the majority of people are ineligible to apply for travel permits.
For those who are eligible in principle, such as medical patients referred for treatment outside Gaza, an exit permit is not guaranteed. In the past two years, the number of patients referred to West Bank hospitals, including in East Jerusalem, has risen, particularly due to the frequent closures of Gaza's border with Egypt. However, the percentage of permit applications denied or delayed has also increased to nearly 20 per cent of all applications so far in 2015.
February marked six months since the end of last summer's escalation of hostilities. The UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs noted in his briefing to the Security Council this month that, in Gaza, “the combination of the failure to rectify the persistent governance and security issues and the slow pace of reconstruction has created an increasingly toxic environment”. Regarding the ongoing withholding of revenues, he emphasized, “Israel's action is a violation of its obligations under the Paris Protocol of the Oslo Accords and we, again, call for an immediate reversal of this decision”. Unless significant progress is made towards addressing the root causes of the conflict and ending the occupation, the risk of a new round of hostilities remains present.