Rubble offers opportunity and risk in war-torn Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Gaza Strip has few jobs, little electricity and almost no natural resources. But after four deadly wars with Israel in just over a decade, there is a lot of rubble.

Local businesses are now finding ways to profit from the broken pieces of concrete, bricks and debris left over from years of conflict. In a territory with a chronic shortage of building materials, a thriving recycling industry has sprung up, providing income for the lucky few, but raising fears that the refurbished rubble is substandard and unsafe.

“It’s a lucrative business,” said Naji Sarhan, deputy housing minister in the Hamas-led government. The challenge, he said, is to regulate the use of recycled rubble in construction.

“We try to control and correct the misuse of these materials,” he said.

Israel and Gaza’s Hamas leaders have gone to war four times since the Islamic militant group, which opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of the territory in 2007. The most recent fighting took place in May. Israeli airstrikes damaged or leveled tens of thousands of buildings during the fighting.

The United Nations Development Program says it has worked with the local private sector to remove some 2.5 million tons of rubble left over from the 2009, 2012 and 2014 wars. Gaza’s Housing Ministry says the 11 days in May left another 270,000 tonnes.

UNDP has been working on rubble recycling since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. It also played a key role in the latest cleanup, removing around 110,000 tons, or more than a third of the rubble. This includes the Al-Jawhara building, a skyscraper in downtown Gaza that was so badly damaged by Israeli missiles that it was deemed beyond repair. Israel said the building housed Hamas’ military intelligence operations.

Over the past three months, excavators raised to the top of the building have systematically demolished it floor by floor. There is only one floor left and construction crews are now removing the building’s foundations and pillars on the ground.

In a common scene outside every war-torn building, workers separated twisted bar iron from the debris, to be straightened and reused in things like boundary walls and floor slabs.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza for the past 15 years, limiting the entry of much-needed building materials. Israel says such restrictions are necessary to prevent Hamas from diverting goods like concrete and steel for military purposes. Since 2014, it has authorized certain imports under the supervision of the United Nations. But thousands of homes need to be repaired or rebuilt, and shortages are endemic.

UNDP has placed strict restrictions on its recycling effort. He says that the renewed rubble is not safe enough to be used in the construction of houses and buildings. Instead, this allows it to be used only for road projects.

“We do not recommend that rubble be used for reconstruction as such, as it is not a good quality material for reconstruction,” said UNDP spokesperson Yvonne Helle. She said the metal is separated and returned to the owners of the buildings because it “has value too”.

Recently, trucks fell on a plain in central Gaza, near the Israeli border, carrying large pieces of the Al-Jawhara Tower. The site, adjacent to a mountain of garbage serving as Gaza’s main landfill, is supervised by the UNDP.

A wheel loader filled a bucket with debris which was thrown into a crushing machine. It produces large pieces of aggregate which, according to the site supervisor, could be used as a base under the asphalt layer in the construction of streets. For safety reasons, they are not allowed to crush rubble into small aggregates that could be used in house construction.

The trucks then return to Gaza City where the UNDP is funding a road project, providing a much-needed source of labor in a territory with almost 50% unemployment.

UN road projects have provided a partial solution to the rubble problem, but most of Gaza’s debris continues to find its way into the desperate private sector.

Sarhan, the official of the Ministry of Housing, said that it was forbidden to use recycled rubble in large constructions. But he said enforcing the ban was extremely difficult and much of the material was reappearing in local construction markets.

Ahmed Abu Asaker, an engineer with the Gaza Contractors Syndicate, said many brick factories use local aggregate, which he says is not a “big concern”. He said there have been a few isolated cases of mixing into concrete, which is much more dangerous.

No building collapses were reported. But Abu Asaker estimates that thousands of homes have been built with materials from recycled rubble since 2014.

Just north of the UNDP processing center, about 50 rubble crushers were hard at work in a private facility on a recent day, producing different types of aggregate.

The most popular items are ‘sesame’, which is used to make cinder blocks, and ‘lentil-like’ grind sent to cement mixing factories.

Around the grinders were mounds of small aggregate, with tiny bits of shredded plastic, fabric and wood clearly mixed together.

Antar al-Katatni, who runs a brick factory nearby, says he makes bricks using the sesame aggregate. He acknowledged that the material contains impurities like sand, but there is an upside. “That’s more bricks,” he said.

He said engineers don’t buy his blocks for internationally funded projects because they aren’t allowed to, “but poor people do.”

A brick costs two shekels, or about 65 cents, when made with higher quality aggregates imported from Israel. The price of the ones he makes are slightly cheaper, at 1.7 or 1.8 shekels. Where a typical project might require several thousand bricks, even the small difference in price can add up for a poor family.

Sarhan said that given the blockade and many other problems in Gaza, it is difficult to regulate the gray market industry.

“We cannot patrol or check every citizen,” he said. “That’s why you can find someone who used recycled rubble here or there.”

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