GAZA CITY (AP) – There are almost no jobs, no electricity, and no natural resources in the Gaza Strip. But after four intense wars against Israel, what it does have in abundance is rubble, so local traders are finding ways to recycle it to make some money.
In this territory where there is a chronic shortage of construction materials, a nascent recycling industry is flourishing, offering income to a small minority but raising complaints that bricks, concrete chips and waste are unhealthy and dangerous.
“It’s a lucrative business,” said Naji Sarhan, deputy housing minister in the local government, controlled by the Hamas group. The challenge, he pointed out, is to regulate recycling so that the materials can be used in construction.
“We are trying to control and correct the misuse of these materials,” he added.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the radical Islamist group, which opposes Israel’s existence, took control of Gaza by force in 2007. The most recent was in May last year. In the clashes, Israeli airstrikes have damaged or totally destroyed thousands of buildings.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says it has worked with the private sector to clear some 2.5 million metric tons of debris from the wars in 2009, 2012 and 2014. The Gaza Ministry of Housing says that last year’s May war left another 270,000 tons of rubble.
UNDP has helped clear debris from Gaza since Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005. It has also assisted in the most recent clearance effort, removing some 110,000 tons, or more than a third of the debris.
Among the ruins were those of the Al-Jawhara Building, a tower in central Gaza City that was so destroyed that the Palestinians declared it lost. Israel maintains that the building housed Hamas intelligence operations.
For the past three months, bulldozers perched on top of the building have been demolishing it, floor by floor. Now there is only one level left and crews of workers are pulling the pillars and foundation out of the ground.
In a scene that has become common next to every building destroyed by war, workers separate the twisted metals from the rest of the rubble, so they can be used on other objects such as walls and concrete platforms.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a strong blockade on Gaza for 15 years, restricting the entry of construction materials. Israel insists the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from using those materials for its war purposes. Even so, Israel, since 2014, has allowed the importation of some materials into Gaza under the supervision of the United Nations. But there are thousands of homes that still need to be repaired or rebuilt amid a crippling shortage.
UNDP has placed tough restrictions on its recycling efforts. It says that the recycled rubble is not suitable for the construction of houses or other civil buildings, but should only be used for the construction of roads.
“We do not recommend that the rubble be used for reconstruction because it is not good quality material,” said Yvonne Helle, a UNDP spokeswoman. He added that the metal is separated and returned to the owners of the building because “it also has value.”
On a recent day, a line of trucks pulled into land in central Gaza near the Israeli border, carrying huge amounts of rubble pulled from the Al-Jawhara tower. The site, adjacent to Gaza’s main garbage dump, is managed by UNDP.
A truck filled a container with debris, which in turn was fed into a shredding machine. Huge blocks of material came from there that, according to the project supervisor, can be used under the asphalt in the construction of streets. For safety reasons, they are not allowed to produce smaller blocks that can be used in house construction.
The trucks then returned to Gaza City where UNDP is financing a road project that is providing a much-needed source of jobs in this territory where unemployment reaches 50%.
The roads project offers a partial solution to the rubble problem, but most of the materials continue to end up in the hands of the private sector.
Sarhan, from the Gaza housing ministry, said that the use of recycled material is prohibited for larger constructions. Per acknowledged that enforcing that ban is extremely difficult and that much of the material ends up in local construction markets.
Ahmed Abu Asaker, an engineer with the Gaza Contractors Union, revealed that many brick factories use the blocks of recycled material, which he said is not a “big problem”. He said there have been few cases where the material ends up mixed with concrete, which can be much more dangerous.
There have been no reports of building collapses from this cause. But Abu Asaker estimates that thousands of homes have been built from recycled materials since 2014.
Just north of the UNDP processing center, some 50 shredders were busily working at a private facility on a recent day, churning out blocks of various types.
The most popular products are “sesame”, which is used to make cement blocks, and the so-called “lentil” mixture used in cement factories.
Around the crushers were mounds of smaller blocks, within which were clearly shredded remains of plastic, cloth, and wood.
Antar al-Katatni, manager of a nearby brick factory, says that he makes bricks using the sesame mixture. He acknowledged that the material has impurities like sand, but emphasizes the positive side: “It allows me to make more bricks.”
He affirmed that engineers do not buy their bricks for projects that come with foreign financing, because they are prohibited from doing so, “but the poor do buy them.”
A brick costs 2 shekels, or about 65 cents, if it is made from better-quality Israeli material, but the ones that Al-Katatni makes sell for 1.7 or 1.8 shekels.
It may seem like a small difference, but for a poor family that needs thousands of bricks to rebuild their home, it is a significant amount.
Sarhan noted that given the blockade and the many other problems plaguing Gaza, it is difficult to regulate the recycling of rubble.
“We can’t be everywhere, monitoring every citizen,” Sarhan said, “that’s why you might see someone using recycled rubble here or there.”