Rubble brings opportunity and risk in war-torn Gaza Strip

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 cash in on the pieces of broken concrete, bricks and debris left over from years of conflict. In a territory suffering from a chronic shortage of building materials, a bustling recycling industry has flourished, 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 territory government. The challenge, he said, is to regulate the use of recycled rubble in construction.

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

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

The United Nations Development Program said it worked with the local private sector to remove some 2.5 million tonnes of rubble left over from the wars of 2009, 2012 and 2014. Gaza’s housing ministry said the war of 11 days in May had left an additional 270,000 tonnes.

UNDP has been working on recycling rubble since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. It also played a key role in the latest cleanup, removing around 110,000 tonnes, or more than a third of the rubble. This includes the Al-Jawhara Building, a skyscraper in downtown Gaza that was so 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 lifted to the top of the building have systematically demolished it floor by floor. There is only one floor left, and the construction crews are now removing the building’s foundation and pillars from the ground.

In a common scene outside every war-destroyed building, workers separated the twisted rebar irons from the debris, to be straightened out and reused in things like perimeter walls and floor slabs.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza for the past 15 years, restricting 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 rampant.

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

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

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

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

The trucks then return to Gaza City where UNDP is funding a road project, providing a much needed source of work in a territory with nearly 50 percent unemployment.

UN road projects have provided a partial solution to the rubble problem, but most of Gaza’s debris continues to end up in the desperate private sector.

Sarhan, the head of the Housing Ministry, said it is forbidden to use recycled rubble in large constructions. But he said it is extremely difficult to enforce this ban, and much of the material is returning to local construction markets.

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

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

Just north of the UNDP processing center, around 50 rubble crushers have been working at a private facility in recent days, producing different types of aggregate.

The most popular items are “sesame”, which is used for making concrete blocks, and “lentil-like” grind sent to cement mixing factories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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