Normalizing the Siege: The ‘Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism’ and the Contradictions of Humanitarianism and Reconstruction

Pietro Stefanini, The Palestinian Return Centre

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30, The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

In Gaza, the politics of post-war reconstruction raise critical issues about the logic of humanitarianism. This essay analyses the politics of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), which was set up in 2014 as a temporary tripartite agreement between the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government and the United Nations. Rather than advance the reconstruction of Gaza, the GRM has normalized the Israeli blockade. The GRM’s operational approach is driven by Israel’s security concerns rather than by genuine concern for the rebuilding of Palestinian lives. As well as legitimizing Israel’s hegemonic narrative, the GRM severely limited the entrance of “dual use” materials and turned the reconstruction process into another technique of domination.

Following Eyal Weizmann, I suggest that the “disengagement” and siege of Gaza constituted a shift in Israeli techniques of power and control, from direct physical occupation and settlement to “humanitarian management” from a distance. The Israeli logic of control and domination converged with the UN’s “neutral” humanitarian approach, which led to the GRM entrenching the siege on Gaza rather than supporting reconstruction. The failures of this UN brokered deal raises questions on the role of international actors in post-war reconstruction, the consequences of humanitarianism, and its relationship with structures of domination such as settler colonialism. Scholarship on the history of humanitarian intervention in the lives of Palestinians underscores this paradox of a humanitarianism, which never brought them closer to their national aspirations.[i]

Humanitarian action towards Palestinians by certain international actors may be driven by well-intentioned concern to alleviate suffering. However, the political consequences of supposedly humanitarian relief can have unintended negative effects on the oppressed people they seek to help. The collusion of humanitarianism with systems of domination is not unique to Palestine-Israel as sociologist Van Krieken suggests that the underlying logic of humanitarianism is an essential, if always contested, element of the colonial project.[ii] Describing the efforts of humanitarians to make the injustices of empire and settler colonialism somewhat more bearable, he argues that an important feature of humanitarianism (during European settlement in Australia) is the extent to which it fitted with the settlers’ concerns, rather than challenging them in any way.[iii] It is my contention that the United Nations’ approach in the reconstruction mechanism in Gaza reproduced a similar dynamic.


“No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.”

Gaza came under Egyptian administration in 1948 after Israel expelled some 750,000 indigenous Palestinians. When Israel conquered the Gaza Strip in 1967, it imposed a military occupation and moved to expand its settlements in those areas. Israel’s evacuation of settlements from Gaza in 2005, while intensifying control over all points of entry,signaled Israel’s intention to abandon the area while still retaining control over the population. Today, approximately two thirds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are refugees who claim a right to return to their lands in present-day Israel.

Following the 2005 “disengagement plan,” Israel declared that the new regime “will be applied following a legal examination, taking into account the humanitarian situation and with the intention of preventing a humanitarian crisis.”[iv] In 2007, after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel outlined to the High Court of Justice its policy that the law of belligerent occupation no longer applies in Gaza and, therefore, Israel bears only humanitarian duties toward its population.[v]

In order to prevent a complete collapse of the situation, Israeli officials also calculated a “humanitarian minimum”[vi] required to sustain the population. Following a legal battle, the Israeli government was forced to release the “red lines” document which outlined the minimum number of calories, estimated by Israel’s Health Ministry based on humanitarian standards, necessary to sustain the people of Gaza without falling below the level of the UN definition of hunger. Israeli academic Adi Ophir argues that the logic underpinning humanitarian assistance to Gaza is serving to “suspend the catastrophe,” which allows Israeli authorities to avoid “the creation of chronic disaster.”[vii] The overarching strategy for Gaza as one Israeli official put it was, “No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.”[viii] Humanitarianism was thus at the service of Israel’s colonial siege.

In a seminal piece, anthropologist Patrick Wolfe stated that “Settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event.”[ix] While settlers left the Gaza Strip, the structure of control they established has remained in place in a different form. The Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza points to a shift in techniques of domination, from physical occupation to management of the blockade.[x] Israel’s siege, enforced with Egypt’s support, aims to discipline the local population (and Hamas) into submission while retaining the minimum necessary humanitarian concern to protect civilians’ lives. While the movement of goods and people in the West Bank is controlled through checkpoints, the Gaza Strip is regulated through what the Israeli military calls “humanitarian corridors.”[xi] As argued by Yves Winter,[xii] Israel’s technique of domination in Gaza is enforced through a “humanitarian siege,” in which humanitarianism is not a direct challenge to the siege but part of its functioning mechanism.

This builds on what political economist Sara Roy described as ‘de-development’.[xiii] Over 60 percent of Gazans now survive through foreign humanitarian aid.[xiv] In addition to the siege, in the last decade Gazans have faced multiple major military operations. Already in 2009, Israeli authorities were planning the reconstruction process in Gaza, amidst an ongoing cycle of violence, to become another element in Israel’s politics of siege. “We are studying it,” Isaac Herzog, former Israeli minister of welfare and social affairs, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times, “The exact mechanism hasn’t been devised yet.” He added: “Israel helps fully on the humanitarian issue. Thereafter it’s a red line.”[xv]


“Security:” protection of the settler colonizers

The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism was established following the 2014 Gaza War, which has been described as one of the most destructive attacks on Gaza’s people and infrastructure. In the war 2,251 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed, more than 11,000 people were injured and about 500,000 Palestinians were internally displaced at the height of the 51-day war.[xvi] According to the UN, nearly 170,000 homes were damaged or destroyed during the hostilities; at least 19,000 of them were uninhabitable (of which 12,576 home were totally destroyed).[xvii] In response to this situation international governments and the UN invested in the creation of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. Drafted between Israel, the UN, and the Palestinian Authority, the GRM’s official mandate is to:

enable the parties to: provide security assurances to the GoI [Government of Israel]; work at the scale required in the Gaza Strip; enable the PA [Palestinian Authority] to play the lead role in the reconstruction effort of the Gaza Strip and assure donors that any investments will be implemented without delay.[xviii]

The key operational approach driving this system is framed as “a mechanism to allow the entry into Gaza of large amounts of materials considered ‘dual-use’ for the purposes of reconstruction following the conflict in 2014.”[xix] The implication behind the term “dual-use” is that items which are primarily civilian in nature could also have military uses (building tunnels and rockets). In April 2017, after a prolonged legal battle, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) published a list of what may be considered ‘dual-use’ materials. According to Israeli NGO Gisha,[xx] the published list includes broad definitions of “categories” and not “items,” which allows COGAT virtually total control over the materials permitted to enter. This has led to a widespread refusal of materials with over 2000 different type of “dual-use” items “rejected on every occasion they have been requested permission” through the GRM.[xxi] These “dual-use” items include aggregate, steel bars, and cement – effectively all essential construction materials necessary to rebuild infrastructure.[xxii]

Crucially, the GRM enshrines a veto power to the Israeli government over the materials permitted based on what is described as “legitimate security concerns.” The Israeli state justifies the siege and military operations in Gaza arguing it is an act of self-defense to preserve the nation’s security.[xxiii] The UN (and the PA) have capitulated to Israel’s hegemonic security narrative,[xxiv] effectively legitimizing the domination of the oppressor on the oppressed. Without denying any agency to the Palestinian Authority, it should be pointed out that the PA, which in many respects has become Israel’s occupation subcontractor, is seemingly presented as an equal player while in reality is hardly possible to expect it to manage the reconstruction process by remote control from Ramallah shielded from Israel’s ultimate authority. Ironically, as the GRM sought to limit the entrance of “dual-use” materials supposedly to hinder the construction of tunnels and advance the rebuilding, a 2012 study by Nicholas Pelham found that the tunnel expansion and its impact on the reconstruction process and local economy “precipitated a recovery that rapidly reversed much of Gaza’s earlier decline.”[xxv]

The reconstruction system established with this humanitarian logic entrenches the domination of Palestinians. The reconstruction mechanism was proposed to reassure Israel through instituting a “neutral” apparatus that would inspect all materials entering the territory.[xxvi] The operational approach of this apparatus is detailed in the Materials Monitoring Unit (MMU) Project Initiation Document agreed between the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) and United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).[xxvii] The UNSCO and UNOPS are the two UN agencies mandated to oversee the implementation of the GRM.

The logic of humanitarian concern reproduced in the agreement is exemplified in the “Option Justification” provided in the MMU document.[xxviii] The “Do nothing” option has been discounted because of the prediction that if selected “the humanitarian crisis will persist, economic recovery will be severely limited and the drivers causing conflict will worsen.”[xxix] Instead of “Do nothing,” the document states that the option that has been selected is the only one:

that will reduce the GoI security concerns of items being used for the ‘enhancement of military capabilities and terrorist capacities’ sufficiently enough to permit import approval of significant quantities of construction materials into Gaza.[xxx]

Through this logic, an economy of the lesser evil emerges, with the UN assessing Palestinian needs merely on humanitarian terms, and presenting the framework selected as the only alternative to “Do nothing.” The pre-emptive logic of the humanitarian “lesser evil” is invoked to justify the use of a lesser violence (siege) to prevent a supposedly greater, projected one (renewed conflict).[xxxi] This agreement leads to the UN institutionalizing the Israeli siege in order to guarantee access of humanitarian aid. In this process, the UN continues to render Palestinians bare lives,[xxxii] falling into the trap of Israeli sovereign power that has disqualified the life of this population from political meaning.[xxxiii] The process does not pose the question of whether Gazans too have legitimate “security concerns” in regards to Israel’s occupation, siege and colonization of their lands.


Unsustainable reconstruction

The GRM has been criticized for being a “labyrinth of bureaucracy”[xxxiv] in regards to project selection and implementation. Palestinian families must go through a multi-step process of applications to the PA, the UN and at the end of the “labyrinth” looms COGAT’s veto power over all projects approvals. For instance, according to a Shelter Cluster update from November 2017 “500 households with available funding whose names were submitted in September 2017 are still awaiting approval in the GRM after three months.”[xxxv]Overall, UNSCO suggests there has been some relative progress in terms of actual homes rebuilt. From the 171,000 affected homes, about 61,086 needs repairs or require new construction.[xxxvi] As of May 2017, of the 17,800 homes that were totally destroyed or severely damaged 57 percent have been rebuilt.[xxxvii] Nonetheless, 38 percent[xxxviii] of the cement for the 2014 housing reconstruction caseload is still required. Meanwhile as of August 2017, 29,000 (over 5,500 families) of the 100,000 people displaced at the end of the conflict were still displaced.[xxxix]  In an update from June 2018, nearly four years since the conflict, “over a third of the homes that sustained some type of damage (some 59,000 out 171,000) are yet to be repaired.”[xl]  Estimate time for earliest reconstruction completion varies depending on the funds available, although no official end date has been given. Notably absent from the mechanism is also any mention of addressing the pre-2014 housing crisis.

The UN claims that the slow pace of the reconstruction is due to donors not fulfilling pledges made at the Cairo Conference in October 2014.[xli] As of July 31st, 2017, USD 1.851 billion of the support to Gaza announced at the Cairo Conference was disbursed, which puts the disbursement ratio at 53 percent.[xlii] Various factors account for the unfulfilled pledges. Some donors certainly share the view of former spokesperson for Israel’s prime minister, Mark Regev: “We want to make sure that the rehabilitation of Gaza doesn’t turn into the rehabilitation of Hamas.”[xliii] At the same time, the slow reconstruction process along with possibility that investments may be destroyed (once again) in another war has discouraged Western donors.[xliv]

Middle Eastern states’ donations have reflected the changing geopolitical situation: Qatar and Turkey have delivered the largest aid packages and are considered closer allies to Hamas than other states in the region, while more recently the United Arab Emirates has made overtures to provide aid.[xlv] However, as long as foreign donors continue to bear these costs, Israel faces no financial penalty for repetitive destruction.[xlvi] Rather, it incentivizes Israel’s development of techniques of domination as a resource.[xlvii] One apt example is Israeli cement company Nesher reaping massive profits from the reconstruction process,[xlviii] turning Gaza’s destruction into a fertile ground for “disaster capitalism.”[xlix] The ongoing process of “destroy and repair” feeds a variety of sectors and actors, invested in the “rehabilitation” of post-war Gaza, who Jasbir K. Puar suggests are “embedded in corporate economies of humanitarianism.”[l] This state of affairs seems likely to continue as the Israeli government recently proposed a plan to international donors for US$1 billion toward Gaza’s reconstruction.[li]

Another key issue is that the GRM lacks local ownership since communities affected have not been given any stake or authority over the process. Notably, Gaza’s de-facto government and civil society have been excluded from taking part in the creation and implementation of the GRM. Further, Palestinians have to submit to GPS tracking systems, video cameras, as well as a centralized database (GRAMMS)[lii] of private information in order to receive materials, contributing to Israel’s control over the inhabitants of Gaza.[liii] Some of these issues have led to Palestinian civil society groups calling on policy makers to pressure the UN to end the GRM and for donors to stop their funding.[liv] Failing to take into consideration the main concerns of Palestinians, the UN announced in February 2018 that the system will continue and that along with the PA and Israel they are reviewing the GRM to improve “its functionality, transparency and predictability.”[lv]



Reconstruction is, at its core, a political rather than purely technical process.[lvi] No discussion of reconstruction should fail to take into account the specificity of the political context. The reconstruction of Palestinians’ homes is not just about materials and buildings but should be part of a wider political framework that seeks to decolonize Israel’s settler colonial project in Palestine. If a radical change to the status quo does not occur, “post-conflict” reconstruction will remain part of a “humanitarian attack”[lvii] on the people of Gaza. The short-term gains in housing normalize the existence of a siege that holds almost 2 million Palestinians in carceral conditions. What is conceived as a temporary mechanism bears the risk of becoming a permanent arrangement, as has historically been the case with humanitarian intervention in the lives of Palestinians.

[i] Feldman, I. (2009). Gaza’s Humanitarianism Problem. Journal of Palestine Studies, 38(3), pp.22-37.

[ii] van Krieken, R. (2015). Celebrity, Humanitarianism and SettlerColonialism: G.A. Robinson and the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land. In: L. Richey, ed., Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power. London: Routledge.

[iii] Andrews, D. (2012). Was the Friendly Mission to the Aboriginal people of Van Dieman’s Land in the 1830s an Evangelical Enterprise?, Integrity: A Journal of Australian Church History, 1: 57-80.

[iv] Weizman, E. (2012). The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. London: Verso, p.81.

[v] Gross, A. (2017). The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 232.

[vi] Hass, A. (2012). 2,279 calories per person: How Israel made sure Gaza didn’t starve. [online] Haaretz. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[vii] Ophir, A. (2010). The Politics of Catastrophization: Emergency and Exception. In: D. Fassin and M. Pandolfi, ed., Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. New York: Zone Books.

[viii] (2010). Not your average trip to the mall | Gaza Gateway. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[ix] Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), pp.387-409.

[x] Ibid 4

[xi] (2010). The humanitarian lifeline. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2018].

[xii] Winter, Y. (2015). The Siege of Gaza: Spatial Violence, Humanitarian Strategies, and the Biopolitics of Punishment. Constellations, 23(2), pp.308-319.

[xiii] Roy, S. (2016). The Gaza Strip: the political economy of de-development. 3rd ed. Washington, DC.: Institute for Palestine Studies.

[xiv] World Bank (2015). Gaza Economy on the Verge of Collapse, Youth Unemployment Highest in the Region at 60 Percent. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xv] Tavernise, S. (2009). In Gaza, the Wait to Rebuild Lingers. [online] The New York Times. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xvi] Zonszein, M. (2015). Israel killed more Palestinians in 2014 than in any other year since 1967. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xvii] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2015). Latest damage assessments reveal over 12,500 housing units destroyed over the summer hostilities in Gaza. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xviii] Ibid 13, p. 431

[xix] Grm.Report. (2017). Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Dec. 2017].

[xx] Gisha. (2017). Dual use list published by COGAT | Gaza Gateway. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xxi] Grm.Report. (2017). Dual-use requests. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Dec. 2017].

[xxii] Oxfam. (2017). Treading Water: The worsening water crisis and the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xxiii] Khalidi, R. (2015). From the Editor, The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes. [online] Institute for Palestine Studies. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2018].

[xxiv] Coskun, B. (2007). Hegemonic Securitisations of Terrorism and the Legitimacy of Palestinian Government. Political Perspectives, 1(1), pp.1-26.

[xxv] Pelham, N. (2012). Gaza’s Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel’s Siege. Journal of Palestine Studies, 41(4), p.16.

[xxvi] Barakat, S. and Masri, F. (2017). Still in ruins: Reviving the stalled reconstruction of Gaza. Brookings Doha Center Publications. [online] Brookings Institute. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xxvii] Ibid 13, p. 440

[xxviii] Ibid 13, p.452

[xxix] Ibid

[xxx] Ibid

[xxxi] Weizmann, E. (2012). 665: The Least of All Possible Evils – Journal #38 October 2012. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xxxii] Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[xxxiii] Hanafi, S. (2017). Anti-Humanitarianism. [online] e-flux conversations. Available at: [Accessed 29 Dec. 2017].

[xxxiv] Ibid 27

[xxxv] (2017). Shelter Cluster Palestine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xxxvi] Ibid 27

[xxxvii] Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. (2017). Report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xxxviii] Ibid 27

[xxxix] OCHA oPt (2017). Three years on from the 2014 conflict, 29,000 people remain displaced. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jul. 2018].

[xl] ReliefWeb. (2018). Humanitarian Bulletin occupied Palestinian territory – June 2018. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Jul. 2018]

[xli] Murad, N. (2015). The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism: Smoke and Mirrors?. Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies, 5(2), pp.59-67.

[xlii] World Bank. (2017). Reconstructing Gaza – Donor Pledges. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xliii] Mitnick, J. (2009). Newest Gaza fight: Who controls reconstruction aid?. [online] The Christian Science Monitor. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xliv] Ibid 27

[xlv] Ibid

[xlvi] Emslie, L. (2017). Aid Watch Palestine raises awareness of failed reconstruction efforts in Gaza. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[xlvii] Halper, J. (2015). War against the people. London: Pluto Press.

[xlviii] (2016). Reconstruction of Gaza: zero buildings, massive profit. | Who Profits. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Mar. 2016].

[xlix] Klein, N. (2007) The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.

[l] Puar, J.K. (2015), ‘The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine’, Borderlands E-Journal 14, no. 1, (2015), [Accessed 20 May 2018], Available at

[li] (2018). Israel presents $1 billion rehabilitation plan for Gaza, but demands Palestinian Authority take over. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

[lii] Gaza Reconstruction and Materials Monitoring System. UNOPS. (2015). The Materials Monitoring Unit – Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[liii] Shikaki, I. and Springer, J. (2015). Building a failed state: Palestine’s governance and economy denied. [online] Al-shabaka The Palestinian Policy Network. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[liv] Aid Watch Palestine. (2015). Questions and Answers about the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Dec. 2017].

[lv] UNSCO. (2018). Statement by UN Special Coordinator Mladenov following his joint meeting yesterday with PM Hamdallah and Head of COGAT General Mordechai. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jul. 2018].

[lvi] Harris, A. (2009). Reconstructing Gaza – Lessons from Lebanon. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

[lvii] Ibid 4, p. 90