A UN-sponsored agreement for the reconstruction of Gaza is facing sharp criticism from senior international officials and NGOs, who say it will create a restrictive new monitoring regime for building materials that risks putting the UN in charge of a continuing Israeli blockade.
At the centre of the row is Israel’s insistence that basic goods such as cement, bricks and steel reinforcing – which it says have in the past been diverted by Hamas to build infiltration tunnels and bunkers – are “dual-use” materials with a military application.
Critics argue that plans for monitoring the import, storage and sales of building materials – including installing video cameras, setting up a team of international inspectors and the creation of a database of suppliers and consumers – are more appropriate for a suspect nuclear programme than a postwar reconstruction effort.
The agreement would also cede to Israel the right to approve, and potentially veto, major rebuilding projects, including their location.
The details of the agreement – leaked to the Guardian – and agreed between UN envoy Robert Serry, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, have so far been briefed to only a few senior UN officials.
Gaza, the scene of three destructive wars since 2008, has long faced severe Israeli restrictions on the import of building materials. There have been international calls for a full lifting of the Israeli blockade and restrictions on items such as concrete. However, the new regime would instead put it under even tighter controls.
The criticism emerged as Serry was due to meet Palestinian and Israeli officials on Thursday in Ramallah before an international donor conference in Cairo, on 12 October, to discuss postwar reconstruction.
According to Palestinian estimates, Gaza will need almost $8bn (£5bn) in aid to rebuild after the recent 50-day war that claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian lives.
The disclosure of the content of the deal, drawn up by Serry in bilateral talks first with the Israeli government and then the Palestinian Authority, comes before talks to reach a more permanent truce in Gaza later this month, which is predicated on the Palestinian side on reconstruction and a loosening of the Israeli-imposed blockade.
Underlining the difficulties in the proposed arrangements, a UN risk assessment drawn up on 14 September to examine the feasibility of the monitoring scheme lists the likelihood of Israel reneging on agreements as “high risk” and potentially “catastrophic”.
A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the mechanism was vital to prevent Hamas rebuilding its military infrastructure. “It is not just Israel that should want this arrangement,” said Mark Regev in response to the reports of criticism. “But NGOs and international humanitarian organisations should want this.
“No one has an interest in Hamas stealing building material and they have made clear in public statements that they want to rebuild their terror tunnels.”
He added: “There is no alternative. I believe it will work with goodwill. The wild card over implementation of this will be Hamas.”
Despite criticism from some, other international officials involved in the discussions around the reconstruction told the Guardian that Israel was one of those pushing hardest to find a mechanism to get materials for reconstruction into Gaza.
The UN’s deputy special envoy, James Rawley, said: “If implemented this agreement has the potential to have a significant impact on the lives of people in Gaza,” before adding: “The proof will be in the pudding, we recognise that.”
Another senior official involved in the discussions said: “No one is under any illusions about the difficulties involved in the process. The UN has been at the forefront of advocacy for lifting the blockade. We recognise that this is not a full lifting of the blockade, but it could be a major step in the right direction.”
The disclosures come at a time of growing Palestinian anger towards international bodies in Gaza from people desperate to see progress.
According to the document – titled the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism – the temporary arrangement would set up a tripartite “high level steering team” to oversee monitoring. Of five “overarching” priorities listed, the first is “to satisfy Israeli security concerns related to the use of construction and dual use material, particularly as related to the monitoring and tracking of material for large-scale works”.
For large-scale works – including schools and factory reconstruction – imports would be covered by the UN’s most stringent counter-terrorism rules, with Israel being asked to process all “project submissions”, albeit within an agreed time. The most stringent oversight will be reserved for concrete and brick-making factories where all “security measures will be taken in accordance with government of Israel specifications”.
That envisages “constant presence of the UN and daily inspections by a UN international staff member in the concrete mixing factory” as well as video monitoring of premises.
Equally controversial for Palestinians is likely to be the requirement for homeowners needing building materials to register their ID number, address/locality [and] family status for a database that will be available to Israeli officials, including its intelligence agencies.
Despite the urgency of reconstruction in Gaza, the mechanism – designed to ensure the import into Gaza of aggregates, steel reinforcing bars and cement – for both large-scale reconstruction and small-scale projects is “predicated on the establishment of a central IT database” that would register the “import and transfer” of building materials that it suggests would need to be set up by a body like a major auditing company.
According to the assessment of one major international NGO that has seen the deal the arrangements would “simply not be feasible”.
“It is entirely based on Israeli discretion and goodwill,” said a source who has seen the text of the agreement. “There is no mechanism for dispute resolution and it also doesn’t factor in the realities on the ground, either in terms of security or Gaza’s politics.
“It sees the Palestinian Authority administering this with no mention of Hamas at a time when the unity government is not even administering the local ministries in Gaza and when there has been no rationalising of key departments. Ultimately all this does is transfer the responsibility for maintaining the blockade of Gaza to the UN.”
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA – the biggest UN agency in Gaza – said: “We welcome the new mechanism and hope it becomes functional as soon as possible to ensure that Gaza’s reconstruction needs are fully met.
“While the mechanism must facilitate full reconstruction it cannot be a substitute for the complete lifting of the blockade including for exports, a position which UNRWA and the international community strenuously demands.
“Gaza has moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. We also need political action to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. Without this and accountability for violations of international law by all parties to the conflict we fear a return to the unsustainable pattern of blockade, rockets and destruction.”