In war-stricken Gaza, rubble brings both opportunity and risk

GAZA CITY (Gaza Strip) -- Gaza Strip is a poor place with few jobs, very little electricity, and virtually no natural resources. It has lots of rubble after the four brutal wars it fought with Israel in just over 10 years.

In war-stricken Gaza, rubble brings both opportunity and risk

Local businesses are finding new ways to make a profit from the smashed concrete, bricks, and other debris left over from years of conflict. A bustling recycling sector has sprung up in a region that is struggling to find construction materials. It provides income for a few, but raises concerns about the safety and quality of the refurbished rubble.

Naji Sarhan (deputy housing minister) in the Hamas-led government of the territory said, "It's very lucrative." He said that the challenge is to regulate the use of recycled rubble for construction.

He stated that "We are trying control and correct the misused of these materials."

Since 2007, when the Islamic militant group that opposes Israel seized the territory, Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers went to war four times. In May, the most recent fighting took place. Tens of thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed by Israeli airstrikes during the fighting.

According to the United Nations Development Program, it worked with local private sector partners to remove 2.5 million tons of rubble from wars in 2009 and 2012. According to Gaza's Housing Ministry, the additional 270,000 tons were left over from the May 11-day war.

Since 2005, the UNDP has been involved in rubble recycling. It played a major role in the most recent cleanup, which saw the removal of approximately 110,000 tons (or more than one third) of the rubble. This includes Al-Jawhara, a high-rise located in downtown Gaza City. It was so badly damaged by Israeli missiles that it was declared unrepairable. Israel claimed that the building was home to Hamas' military intelligence operations.

Excavators have lifted the building from the top and demolished each floor floor by floor over the last three months. Only one floor remains, and construction crews are currently removing the foundations and pillars from the ground.

Workers separated the twisted rebar from the debris in a common scene that was seen outside all buildings destroyed during the war. They were then re-used for things like ground slabs and boundary walls.

For the past 15 years, Israel and Egypt have imposed a severe blockade on Gaza. This has restricted the access to crucial construction materials. Israel claims that such restrictions are necessary to stop Hamas from using goods such as concrete and steel for military purposes. Some imports have been allowed by Israel since 2014 under the supervision the United Nations. However, thousands of homes still need to be rebuilt or repaired and there are severe shortages.

The UNDP has placed strict restrictions on its recycling efforts. The UNDP says that the safety of recycled rubble cannot be used in building homes or buildings. It allows it to only be used for road construction.

"We don't recommend any rubble be used for reconstruction as such," stated Yvonne Helle (UNDP spokesperson). Because the metal has "also a value," she said that it is separated and returned back to the building owners.

Recently, trucks carrying large pieces from Al-Jawhara tower were seen trudging into central Gaza's lowlands. The UNDP oversees the site which is adjacent to Gaza's main garbage dump.

A wheel loader filled up a bucket with debris, which was then thrown into a crusher. The machine produces large amounts of aggregate which can be used to base asphalt layers in street construction. They are prohibited from crushing the rubble to smaller pieces that can be used for house construction.

The trucks return to Gaza City, where the UNDP funds a road project. This is a vital source of work for a region with almost 50% unemployment.

Although the U.N. road projects provided some relief from the rubble problem to a certain extent, most of Gaza's debris still finds its way into the private sector.

Sarhan, the Housing Ministry official said that it was against the law to use recycled rubble for major construction. He said that it is difficult to enforce the ban and that much of the material is being reintroduced into local construction markets.

Ahmed Abu Asaker is an engineer from Gaza Contractors Union. He stated that many brick factories use local aggregate which he says is not a concern. However, a few cases have seen it mixed with concrete which can be far more dangerous.

No reports have been made of any building falling. Abu Asaker believes that thousands of homes were built using materials made from recycled rubble over the past four years.

Near the UNDP processing centre, 50 rubble crushers were busy at work at a private plant on a recent morning, producing various types of aggregate.

Most popular are "sesame," used to make cinder blocks, as well as the "lentil-like", which is sent to cement-mixing plants.

Mounds of small aggregate were found around the crushers, with small pieces of shredded plastic and cloth clearly mixed in.

Antar al-Katatni runs a nearby brick plant and says that he uses the sesame aggregate to make bricks. Although the material is not free from impurities such as sand, there are some benefits. He said, "It makes more bricks."

He stated that engineers don't buy his blocks to finance international projects because they aren't allowed to, but poor people do.

Two shekels is equivalent to 65 cents for a brick made from Israeli-imported higher-quality aggregate. He makes them for 1.7 and 1.8 shekels. A typical project may require several thousand bricks. Even a small price difference can make a big difference for a family with a low income.

Sarhan stated that it was difficult to regulate gray market industries due to the blockade and Gaza’s many other problems.

He said, "We cannot control or patrol every citizen." "That's why you might find someone using recycled rubble here or elsewhere."

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