Even with Gaza under siege, some envision reconstruction

One December morning in central London, more than two dozen people from influential institutions in the Middle East, Europe and the United States gathered in a conference room to pursue an aspiration that, at the time, bordered on 'absurdity. They were there to plan the reconstruction and long-term economic development of Gaza.

Gaza has been relentlessly bombed by Israeli military forces in response to terrorist attacks launched by Hamas in October. Communities across the territory were being reduced to rubble and tens of thousands of people had been killed. Families were confronted with the immediacy of hunger, fear and pain.

Yet at the meeting in London, members of the international establishment discussed how to transform Gaza from a place characterized by isolation and poverty into a Mediterranean commercial hub focused on trade, tourism and innovation, producing a middle class .

The group included senior officials from American and European economic development agencies, executives from Middle Eastern finance and construction companies and two partners from the international consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. Officially they participated only as individuals and not as representatives of their institutions.

The plan they produced is far removed from the terrible reality Gaza faces today. Making it a reality would require ending a war that has left the territory devastated, not to mention tens of billions of dollars in investment. It would also require resolving the enormous and entirely uncertain political question of who will ultimately control Gaza, and then the cooperation of that authority. All this makes the plan far from being a blueprint for action.

Yet participants argue that the simple exercise of mapping out a more prosperous future has value because it can pave the way for plans once conditions are right – an idea that has prompted such planning in conflict zones such as Kuwait, after been invaded by Iraq, and Ukraine.

“We are proposing to connect Gaza to the world in the long term,” said Chris Choa, founder and director of Outcomist, a London-based firm that designs large-scale urban development projects and an early convener of the group, known as Emerging Palestine.

Among those involved are Hashim Shawa, president of the Bank of Palestine, a commercial bank; Samer Khoury, CEO of Consolidated Contractors International, a construction company engaged in major projects throughout the Middle East; and Mohammed Abukhaizaran, a board member of Arab Hospitals Group, a healthcare provider in the West Bank. Everyone would potentially have an interest in the eventual reconstruction work.

“As soon as the war started, my team and I started developing a plan to build a facility in Gaza as soon as the war ends,” Abukhaizaran said in an interview.

For the group it is clear that the most urgent work is the provision of food, water, healthcare and emergency shelter to the residents of Gaza, who now find themselves facing catastrophe. But the main goal of his plan is the reconstruction that will take place in the coming decades.

“The war in Gaza must end immediately and there will be an incredible and immediate humanitarian effort,” Abukhaizaran said. “But we must also think long term to build a better future for the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank.”

The initiative, one of many under discussion, has gained the interest and advice of major international financial organizations, including the World Bank, said a senior agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. The bank sees the plan as a useful contribution towards a strategy that could generate jobs in Gaza while integrating the territory into the global economy.

Representatives of US government agencies attended seminars on the emerging Palestine and offered advice on the details of the plan, a senior US official said, also speaking on condition of not being named. America's commitment to the initiative has been driven by the assumption that greater economic opportunities in Gaza are necessary to undermine popular support for Hamas, the official added.

The plan centers on a series of major projects, including a deep-water port, a desalination plant to provide drinking water, an online health service and a transport corridor linking Gaza with the West Bank. A reconstruction and development fund would oversee future initiatives.

The most far-sighted elements, such as the reduction of customs barriers to trade and the introduction of a new currency in place of the Israeli shekel, presuppose the eventual establishment of Palestinian autonomy, a step that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised to resist. He also ignored the prospect that Gaza's future governance might include a role for the Palestinian Authority, the most obvious potential partner in the reconstruction initiative.

The enormous price to pay for any reconstruction is another obstacle. According to a recent estimate by the World Bank and the United Nations, the damage toll on Gaza's crucial infrastructure has reached $18.5 billion. Half the population is on the brink of famine and more than a million people are homeless.

Who could provide such financing is one of the most important variables. A previous development plan for the Palestinian territories put forward by the Trump administration in 2019 included substantial investments from Persian Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The new initiative has yet to involve Gulf countries, Choa said.

The development imperative in Gaza predates the current war. According to the World Bank, the territory's unemployment rate was above 45% in 2022. According to the International Monetary Fund, more than half the population lived in poverty.

While visions of modern transportation systems may now seem peripheral to Gaza's essential needs, the plan is governed by the assumption that even temporary structures such as emergency shelter and health facilities must be carefully positioned to avoid squandering possibilities. future.

“Temporary tends to become permanent very quickly,” Choa said. “Someone says, 'We're going to build this big refugee camp right here,' but that might be where they want to build a wastewater treatment plant or a transit line in the future. So you create an obstacle.

Mr. Choa, 64, has spent much of his career as an international architect wrestling with such details. After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he took part in a commission charged with outlining the future of Lower Manhattan. He subsequently lived and worked in China, where he oversaw master plans in major urban areas. After moving to London in 2006, he continued such work in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

He first worked on a detailed plan for Gaza in 2015 through work commissioned by Palestinian business interests. He led several missions to Gaza, meeting with the Palestinian Authority and the arm of the Israel Defense Forces that administered the territory. But the pandemic and Israeli security concerns halted the efforts.

In the wake of Hamas attacks on Israel in October, he sought to revive the project, joining forces with Baron Frankal, chief executive of the Portland Trust, a London-based organization that pursues economic opportunities for Palestinians.

After the December meeting in London, an expanded group of 58 people met in Washington in early March. A meeting was recently held in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank. Another meeting is planned in Tel Aviv in early June.

The group notified the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Frankal said. One member of the initiative, Wael Zakout, a former World Bank official, recently joined the incoming Palestinian government.

The group did not involve Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007 and is widely condemned as a terrorist organization.

“If Hamas is still active, people will not invest tens of billions of dollars,” said Stephen Byers, a former British cabinet secretary in Tony Blair's government, who attended the London meeting.

The ideas that emerged from the workshops extend into the next quarter of a century. These include building a state-of-the-art football stadium and elevating the existing football team to a more internationally competitive level, and creating a strategy to encourage a Palestinian film industry.

The deep-water port would be built on an artificial island constructed from nearly 30 million tons of debris and rubble that is expected to litter the land once the conflict ends, and is expected to take at least a decade to clear.

The plan proposes the creation of a Reconstruction Technical University in northern Gaza that would award degrees and attract students from around the world. They would study strategies to emerge from the disaster and stimulate development, using post-war Gaza as a living laboratory.

The destruction is so extensive that the usual means of administering aid and overseeing reconstruction will be inadequate, the World Bank official said.

American government agencies face legal restrictions in working directly with the Palestinian Authority. Other institutions are reluctant to deal with the Palestinian Authority given its reputation for corruption. All of this makes private companies crucial elements of the plan, although they too will face the risks of investing in a highly uncertain climate.

While larger projects require clarity on Gaza's future political administration, other initiatives, such as those aimed at encouraging small businesses, could begin as soon as military activities cease.

“I want to focus on how we're going to open the bread shop, how we're going to get the factories up and running,” said Jim Pickup, chief executive of the Middle East Investment Initiative, a nonprofit that finances development projects. “Every truck that will clear the rubble is itself a small business, supporting a family.”

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