More than 2,200 people, including more than 500 Palestinian children, lost their lives during the devastating war between Israel and Hamas this summer. About 108,000 people in Gaza are left without a home, and 450,000 people are unable to access municipal water. The 50 days of war have laid large swaths of the Gaza Strip in ruins. On top of the incalculable human suffering and loss, Gaza is left with reconstruction costs amounting to at least 4 billion dollars.
For too many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, this is not the first time they have witnessed their homes turn into rubble. Decades of military occupation and conflict have resulted in endless destruction, but the intensity has increased with three wars occurring in the last six years. In the test of time, the current unresolved situation has proven unable to provide any of the parties to the conflict with security.
I was, after the Oslo agreement in 1993, the first chair of the donor group for the Palestinians that this Sunday, again will meet in Cairo in Egypt to pick up the bill, after failing to avoid another war. The delegates will have to face the following questions: How many times should we rebuild Gaza? And for how long should we provide assistance to people locked into aid-dependence, instead of investing the equivalent energy into ending the conflict and the despair?
Even before the last war, 80 percent of the 1.8 million people in Gaza were dependent on international assistance. After the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, and then after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel, with the complicity of Egypt, implemented a strict blockade on Gaza. The blockade has effectively turned the narrow strip of land into the world's largest detention facility, with few and arbitrary exceptions. Palestinians in Gaza remain cut off from the rest of Palestine, isolated economically, politically and socially.
Humanitarian assistance in Gaza is a band-aid to a man-made humanitarian and economic disaster. In a time when the humanitarian budgets are stretched to the limits due to multiple mega crises in places like Syria and Iraq, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, we can no longer afford to fail looking for political solutions.
A political solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is long over-due. In my former role as a State Secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I co-organised the secret negotiations leading up to the Oslo agreement in 1993. It was a schedule to realize permanent peace through a two-state solution. At that time, we all felt that the end to generations of conflict was on the horizon. Now, 21 years later, that horizon has not moved closer.
While there is a Palestinian Authority in parts of Palestine, there is yet to be a viable independent state. The two-state vision is challenged by the continued violence, the blockade and separation of Gaza, and Israel's occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- all politically driven policies that can end with courageous and creative diplomacy.
In the meantime, too many lives have been wasted needlessly on both sides and hope for the future is in short supply. Too much money has gone into keeping an unsustainable status quo. Money for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance is badly needed but cannot substitute international pressure for political change.
Lift the blockade
As a first step, the blockade on Gaza should be lifted. The blockade has rightly been described as an unlawful collective punishment of the population of Gaza by the international community. With the new Palestinian Government of National Consensus ending the division between Fatah and Hamas and the 2011 prisoner exchange that led to release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the original Israeli justifications for the blockade are also no longer valid.
The blockade has caused a devastating de-development of the Gaza Strip, a precarious fiscal position, mass unemployment, wider and deeper poverty and increased despair.
The blockade has also made it difficult for humanitarian organizations and the U.N. to bring in the necessary building materials.
The international coordination group for shelter assistance in Gaza, which is led by my organization the Norwegian Refugee Council, has calculated that under the current capacity of the border crossings, it would take more than 20 years to get the necessary building materials into Gaza to rebuild the homes destroyed during the last wars and meet the growing housing needs.
In September, a construction materials monitoring scheme was announced by the United Nations in coordination with the Government of Israel and the Palestine Authority. However, past experience indicates that without a real paradigm shift in the way materials and people can enter and exit Gaza, this mechanism is not likely to succeed in securing reconstruction at a rate necessary to meet the staggering needs. Much more can be done, while still meeting Israel's legitimate security needs.
My hope is that the Cairo conference does not become just another pledging conference where promises are made, but never realized due to the blockade. After three wars in Gaza in less than six years, it should be clear to everyone that the status quo is not viable.
The donor conference is a key opportunity for the international community to initiate a paradigm shift. We need to move from a discussion centered on making the blockade "kinder and gentler" and revert back to our larger political visions from the time of the Oslo Accords: establishing a viable Palestinian state that lives in peace with Israel. We need to have a security agreement to allay Israel's legitimate security concerns, and during this period, we must concentrate on ending the blockade and enable economic development.
On this renewed road to peace, we also need initial steps like new and massively expanded ports of entry to Gaza, including a sea port, and immediate steps to establish a safe passage for people as well as imports and exports between Gaza and the West Bank. A small, but positive step was taken when Israel announced it would allow renewed exports of fish and vegetables from Gaza to the West Bank. However, there is still a long way to go.
The financial pledges which are being made in Cairo, must be backed by bold political initiatives ending the de-development and despair in the Gaza Strip and restoring hope. This must be the last time we have to rebuild Gaza.