Rubble presents opportunities and risks in war-torn Gaza Strip

Gaza City, Gaza Strip — The Gaza Strip has few jobs, little electricity and few natural resources. But after four brutal wars with Israel in just over a decade, it has a lot of rubble.

Local businesses are now finding ways to profit from the broken concrete, bricks and debris left over from years of conflict. In an area chronically short of building materials, a thriving recycling industry has sprung up, providing income for a lucky few but also raising concerns about substandard and unsafe refurbished rubble.

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

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

Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers have fought four times since an Islamist militant group opposed to Israel’s presence seized control of the area in 2007. The most recent battle was in May. Israeli airstrikes have destroyed or leveled tens of thousands of structures in the fighting.

The United Nations Development Programme said it worked with the local private sector to remove some 2.5 million tonnes of rubble left over from wars in 2009, 2012 and 2014. The 11-day war in May left another 270,000 tons, the housing ministry in Gaza said.

UNDP has been working on rubble recovery since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. It also played a key role in the recent cleanup, which removed some 110,000 tonnes, or more than a third of the rubble. These included the Al-Jawhara Building, a high-rise building in central Gaza that was severely damaged by Israeli missiles and is considered irreparable. Israel says the building is home to Hamas military intelligence.

Over the past three months, excavators have systematically removed floor by floor on top of the building. With only one floor left, construction crews are removing the building’s foundations and pillars on the ground.

In a common scene outside each of the buildings destroyed by the war, workers separated the twisted steel bar from the debris, straightened it and reused it for things like boundary walls and floor panels.

Israel and Egypt have imposed a severe blockade on the Gaza Strip for the past 15 years, restricting the entry of much-needed construction materials. Israel says such restrictions are needed to prevent Hamas from diverting commodities such as concrete and steel for military use. Since 2014, it has allowed the import of some products under UN supervision. But with thousands of homes in need of repair or rebuilding, shortages are rampant.

UNDP has imposed strict restrictions on its recycling efforts. It said the updated rubble was not enough to be safely used to build houses 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 quality material for reconstruction,” said UNDP spokeswoman Yvonne Helle. She said the metal was separated and returned to the building’s owner because it “also has value”.

On a recent day, trucks drove into the lowlands in central Gaza near the Israeli border, carrying large cargoes from Jawarata. The site is adjacent to a mountain of rubbish that serves as Gaza’s main landfill and is overseen by the United Nations Development Programme.

The wheel loader fills a bucket with debris, which is thrown into the crusher. It produces large aggregates, which site supervisors say can be used as foundations under asphalt layers in street construction. For safety reasons, they do not allow crushed stone to be crushed into smaller aggregates that can be used in house construction.

The truck then returns to Gaza City, where UNDP is funding a road project to provide a much-needed source of jobs in an area where unemployment is approaching 50 percent.

A United Nations road project has provided a partial solution to the rubble problem, but much of Gaza’s debris continues to find its way into the desperate private sector.

Housing ministry official Salhan said the use of recycled crushed stone in large buildings is prohibited. But he said enforcing the ban was extremely difficult and most of the material was creeping back into the local construction market.

Ahmed Abu Asaker, an engineer with the Gaza Contractors Union, said many brick factories use local aggregates, which he said was not a “big problem”. He said there were isolated cases of it being mixed into concrete, which was far more dangerous.

There are no reports of buildings collapsing. But Abu Asak estimates that since 2014, thousands of homes have been built with recycled rubble material.

On a recent day, at a private facility north of the UNDP machining center, some 50 rock crushers were hard at work producing different types of aggregates.

The most popular are “sesame seeds” used to make cinder blocks, and “lentil-like” abrasives sent to cement mixing plants.

Around the crusher were piles of small aggregates, with shredded plastic, cloth and wood apparently mixed in.

Antar al-Katatni, who runs a nearby brick factory, said he made bricks from sesame aggregate. He admits that the material contains impurities such as sand, but also has benefits. “It can make more bricks,” he said.

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

A brick costs 2 shekels, or about 65 cents, if made with higher-quality Israeli-imported aggregates. He made them a little cheaper at 1.7 or 1.8 shekels. When a typical project may require several thousand bricks, even a small price difference can add up to a poor family.

Given the blockade and many other problems in Gaza, it is difficult to regulate the grey market industry, Sarhan said.

“We can’t patrol or control every citizen,” he said. “That’s why you might find people here or there using recycled rubble.”