The Gaza Strip has very few jobs, little electricity and almost no natural resources. But more than a decade after four fierce wars with Israel, there is much more to it.
Local businesses are now finding ways to capitalize on chunks of concrete, bricks and rubble left behind by years of struggle. In an area suffering from chronic shortages of building materials, a bustling recycling industry has sprung up, providing income to a lucky few, but there is growing concern that the refurbished rubble is substandard and unsafe.
“It’s a lucrative business,” said Naji Sirhan, deputy housing minister in the region’s Hamas-led government. The challenge, he said, is to regulate the use of recycled debris in construction.
“We are trying to control and fix the misuse of these materials,” he said.
Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers have gone to war four times since the Islamic militant group, which opposes Israel’s existence, took control of the region in 2007. The most recent fight was in May. Israeli airstrikes have damaged or leveled tens of thousands of buildings in the fighting.
The United Nations Development Program says it worked with the local private sector to remove some 2.5 million metric tons of debris left behind by wars in 2009, 2012 and 2014. Gaza’s housing ministry says the 11-day war in May left an additional 270,000 tonnes.
UNDP has worked on the recycling of debris since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. It has also played a key role in the latest cleanup, removing about 110,000 tonnes or more than a third of the debris. It also included the al-Jawara building, a high-rise building in downtown Gaza City, which was so heavily damaged by Israeli missiles that it was deemed beyond repair. Israel said Hamas had military intelligence operations in the building.
Over the past three months, excavators systematically dropped it from floor to floor, lifting it off the top of the building. Only one floor is left and construction teams are now removing the foundation of the building and the pillars on the ground.
In a common scene outside each building destroyed by the war, workers separate bent iron from rubble, which can be straightened and re-used in things like boundary walls and ground slabs.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a severe blockade on Gaza for the past 15 years, prompting an extreme need for building materials. Israel says such sanctions are needed to prevent Hamas from removing items such as concrete and steel for military use. Since 2014, it has allowed some imports under the supervision of the United Nations. But thousands of homes need to be repaired or rebuilt, and shortages are rife.
The UNDP has imposed strict restrictions on its recycling efforts. It states that the recycled debris is not safe enough for use in the construction of homes and buildings. Instead, it allows it to be used only for road projects.
“We do not recommend using any rubble for any reconstruction, as it is not a good quality material for reconstruction,” said UNDP spokesman Yvonne Healey. She said the metal has been separated and returned to the owners of the buildings because it “also has a value.”
In recent days, trucks rammed into a lowland in central Gaza near the Israeli border, carrying large chunks from the al-Jawara Tower. The site adjacent to the garbage mountain that serves as Gaza’s main landfill is overseen by the UNDP.
A wheel loader filled the bucket with debris which was thrown into the crushing machine. This produces large pieces of aggregate which the site supervisor said can be used as a base under the asphalt layer in road construction. Due to safety concerns, they are not allowed to crush debris into smaller aggregates that can be used in home construction.
The trucks then return to Gaza City where UNDP is funding a road project, providing a much-needed source of work in an area with nearly 50% unemployment.
UN road projects have provided a partial solution to the debris problem, but much of Gaza’s debris is making its way into the desperate private sector.
Housing ministry official Sirhan said that it is forbidden to use recycled debris in large constructions. But he said the ban is extremely difficult to enforce and that most of the material is being returned to local construction markets.
Ahmed Abu Askar, an engineer with the Gaza Contractors Union, said many brick factories use local aggregates, which he said is not a “big concern”. He said that there have been some isolated cases of concrete being mixed in, which is far more dangerous.
There is no report of the building collapsing. But Abu Askar estimates that since 2014, thousands of homes have been built with materials from recycled rubble.
Just north of the UNDP processing centre, in recent days about 50 rubble crushers were operating in a private facility, producing a variety of aggregates.
The most popular items are “sesame”, used to make cinder blocks, and “lentil-like” grinds sent to cement-mixing factories.
Surrounding the crusher were mounds of small aggregates, in which shredded plastic, cloth and small pieces of wood were clearly mixed.
Antar al-Qatani, who runs a nearby brick factory, says he makes bricks using sesame aggregates. He acknowledged that the material has impurities such as sand, but there is an upside. “It makes more bricks,” he said.
He said engineers don’t buy their blocks for internationally funded projects, because they aren’t allowed to do so, “but poor people do.”
A brick costs two shekels, or about 65 cents, when it is made with high-quality Israeli-imported aggregate. The price of what he makes is a little cheaper at 1.7 or 1.8 shekels. While a typical project may require several thousand bricks, even a small price difference can add up for a poor family.
Sirhan said the gray market industry is difficult to regulate, given the blockade and many other problems facing Gaza.
“We cannot patrol or control every citizen,” he said. “So you might find someone here or there using recycled debris.”