Who will shoulder the insurmountable task of rebuilding Gaza?

Sustainable peace in the Middle East will depend on Gulf countries normalising ties with Israel and moving toward a two-state solution for Palestine. Arab nations must seize the initiative.

Approximately 72% of all residential buildings in Gaza have been partially or completely destroyed. 
Lina Jaradat
Approximately 72% of all residential buildings in Gaza have been partially or completely destroyed. 

Who will shoulder the insurmountable task of rebuilding Gaza?

The destruction in the Gaza Strip after seven months of war is already on a scale that the world has not seen in almost eight decades. It will leave an immense burden on reconstruction that Arab countries are bound to carry.

Abdullah Dardari, assistant secretary-general at the United Nations, made that clear in a press conference in Amman early this month. “This is a mission that the global community has not dealt with since World War II”, he said.

He became one of many officials painting a grim picture of Gaza, as the fate of Palestinians living there remains bleak. Indiscriminate daily bombardment persists as peace talks led by Egypt and Qatar stumble, and there remains a lack of international deterrent to Israel’s military onslaught that has so far killed around 35,000 Palestinians. Apart from a shortlived pause last year to exchange hostages, Israeli strikes in Gaza have been relentless since Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel.

Monumental task

As it stands, the Gaza Strip may require $40bn—equivalent to almost all of Egypt’s foreign reserves—to be rebuilt over the course of decades, said Dardari. Around 80% of the damage occurred in the governorates of Gaza, North Gaza and Khan Yunis.

According to data collectively provided by the World Bank, the UN, and the EU, the cost of damage to critical infrastructure in the strip was estimated at around $18.5bn as of last January. This is equivalent to 97% of the combined gross domestic product of Gaza and the West Bank in 2022.

A UN report released in May says the overall rubble from the shelling is estimated at nearly 40 million tonnes in the Gaza Strip. It includes 72% of all residential buildings which have been partially or completely destroyed.

A general view of the destruction in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in Gaza City on 15 January, 2024.

This volume of debris is larger than that in Ukraine, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), while the war there has been going on longer, since February 2022. Looking at that comparison, Mungo Birch, head of the UNMAS programme in the Palestinian territories, said: “To put that in perspective, the Ukrainian front line is 600 miles long, and Gaza is 25 miles long".

Gaza’s vital agricultural sector suffered estimated damage worth $629mn. And with Israeli authorities restricting humanitarian deliveries, Northern Gaza is suffering a “full-blown famine,” according to the United Nations World Food Programme. Other parts of the Strip have been hit by acute hunger, with water and medicines scarce, as well as food.

Some 1.9 million people—or more than 85% of Gaza’s population—have been displaced. Rafah, near the Egyptian borders, hosted around 1.5 million Palestinians up until recently. Nearly 80% of them had been displaced from other parts of the strip due to the Israeli assaults. However, since the Israeli army began its assault on Rafah, most of those displaced have fled yet again. With such a grim situation, it remains unclear what lies ahead for war-torn Gaza and its beleaguered people.

Lingering questions

A list of key questions remains. They range from when the war will end to whether there will be guarantees that violence won’t re-erupt after a peace agreement is in place. Then there is: Will Israel remain determined to obliterate Hamas? And what role, if any, will Hamas possibly play after the war?

There are also longer-term ones: Will the two-state solution be taken forward as the international community ostensibly hopes? What will the overall cost of the war be? What funds will the global community allot for the reconstruction of Gaza? And how will the Arab states contribute to this lengthy and intricate process?

The Arab world must be involved in the prelude to Gaza's reconstruction. According to Emad Gad, vice director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, only regional powers can lay the foundations of sustainable peace.

“The efforts will be sponsored by the US and EU but must be initiated by the Arab nations,” he said, adding that normalising relations with Israel, as laid out in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, would help to fastrack global efforts to rebuild Gaza could begin.

A UN report released in May says the overall rubble from the shelling is estimated at nearly 40 million tonnes in the Gaza Strip.

But getting to that point will not be easy. For decades, Egypt and Jordan were the only two countries in the region having formal relations with Israel. In recent years, US-brokered normalisation deals have been struck with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, but Tel Aviv still has a long way to go for any further recognition.

As well as its war in Gaza, the Israeli military has been engaged with Hezbollah—the Middle East's most capable militia—in neighbouring Lebanon, as well as other Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria.  The Houthis in Yemen have also been launching drone and missile attacks targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. The group—backed by Iran—has recently vowed to intensify and expand their offensive to target any vessel related even remotely to Israel.

And then there came the shocking events of April, when, for the first time ever, there was a direct attack on Israel from its arch-enemy, Iran. The missile strike was announced in advance and resulted in minimal damage, having been blocked by Israel's air defence system. But the symbolic importance of the attack —which was a response to Israel's bombing of an Iranian consular building in Syria—was clear. And it deepened concerns over a catastrophic full-scale confrontation between Israel and Iran.

Enter normalisation

Gad said that progress away from such a threat and toward sustainable regional peace would depend on Israel normalising ties with more countries in the Gulf—particularly with Saudi Arabia—which, like most other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, has never had formal relations with Israel. For the Arab world's largest economy, having such ties is conditional on implementing the two-state solution.

Qatar is another GCC country that has no official ties with Israel. Nonetheless, it has been instrumental in the current negotiations, having been home to some of Hamas's leaders since 2012. Far-right Israeli officials have more than once accused the Qatari government of empowering the militant group during the ongoing conflict. Doha has shrugged off such allegations before hitting back at Israel.

Last March, Qatar reportedly threatened to kick out Hamas should the impasse remain unbroken—a step openly pushed for by the United States. However, experts think that is unlikely. James Dorsey, author and senior fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, rules out this possibility. 

Read more: Hamas's potential departure from Doha echoes past moves

A destroyed neighbourhood in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on October 11, 2023.

"Expelling Hamas from Qatar at this point in the game is counterproductive" and could "write off negotiations over a ceasefire or a prisoner exchange deal" if the group's leadership becomes less accessible elsewhere, he said.

None of the involved parties would be better off with such a move, including the Qataris, who Dorsey said would want to maintain their reputation for their years-long mediation successes amid their close ties with the US.

"It was the United States that wanted Hamas present in Qatar, and Israel acquiesced to that … The United States understood that it needed a back channel; I don't think that has fundamentally changed." 

Hamas expulsion

The US realises that while Hamas can be degraded militarily and in terms of civil infrastructure, it cannot be eliminated, Dorsey added. The expulsion of Hamas from Gaza should be enough for Israel to halt its aggression, which would set the stage for a ceasefire agreement and eventually the recognition of a Palestinian state and the reconstruction of Gaza, according to Gad in Cairo.

 "There has to be arrangements with the Israeli side to ensure that what happened on 7 October won't happen again," he said.

This is a mission that the global community has not dealt with since World War II.

Abdullah Dardari, UN assistant secretary-general

"A permanent ceasefire for the Israeli government can only happen in one case: when Hamas is out of the Strip, at least its military leadership," he added. And Israel "won't stop as long as Hamas rules the strip, and there will be no international guarantees," he argued.

According to Gad, a demilitarised Palestinian state mostly spanning Gaza and the West Bank, as proposed in a 2000 Camp David conference, is the way forward and what the Arab nations should aim for. He also believes the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is a reasonable replacement for Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by the US, the EU and others. 

Read more: PA rule in Gaza is the most realistic way forward

Dorsey believes the immediate governance of Gaza after the war is unlikely to be "purely Palestinian," which might prompt some sort of multilateral peacekeeping forces with the involvement of Arab countries.

"The Arab states wouldn't want to go into something that is open-ended and run a serious risk of seeing whatever is reconstructed, both in political and infrastructure terms, destroyed in the next round of fighting," he said.

"They're going to want to see that link to a credible process of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … one that is likely to succeed. However, the prospects for that are thin at the moment. On the other hand, you have 2.3 million having gone through a devastating war with nothing left … that's going to play into public pressure."

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