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Gaza And The Twisted Politics Of Cement

Loading cement on a truck in Rafah
Loading cement on a truck in Rafah
Piotr Smolar

GAZA CITY — It's easy to imagine his frustration, that of a professional whose fate doesn't depend on the quality of his work or his willingness to work hard but on political contingencies. Salaheddin Abu Hassira, 50, is an entrepreneur in Gaza's building sector. It's a pursuit that, in this Palestinian territory, seems condemned to prosper after the wars with Israel destroyed so much.

After Israel's Operation Protective Edge, which lasted 50 days over the summer, villages and entire neighborhoods were ravaged. "I'm impatient for reconstruction to start," Hassira says. But right now it's virtually impossible to begin the work of restoring or rebuilding homes. There isn't any of what is as valuable as gold in Gaza — cement.

Hassira, wearing a khamis (a traditional robe), receives visitors in an apartment located in downtown Gaza City. During the day, he's bored. At night, he earns some money as a guard. It's a step-down socially, but what choice does he have?

"It's been two years since I've had a construction project," he says.

For nine years, during that utterly different period when inhabitants could leave Gaza — which is to say, before Hamas came to power in 2007 — the entrepreneur worked in Israel. He supervised construction sites, commuting back and forth. He collaborated with three Israeli companies, but he was forced to fall back on the Palestinian market, which was soon strangled by the blockade. He's proud of having made a name for himself building residential buildings in various parts of the Gaza Strip.

After this summer he was asked to rebuild a school to the north of Gaza City. "The plans are ready, and town hall has given its approval," he says. "But I need materials like stone, but mainly cement!" Cement can be found at small warehouses on the city's outskirts with sacks lined up to attract passing drivers, but prices have multiplied five or six times since the beginning of the year. And the war only accelerated the trend.

"These past few years, cement came from Egypt via the tunnels," Hassira explains. "Then the Egyptians closed most of the tunnels. Otherwise, there are two major players in the construction sector, Qatar and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Entrepreneurs completing projects divert some of their cement to the black market."

The Palestinian unity government hopes that this market will dry up if they can obtain free circulation of goods at the checkpoints. The problem is it all depends on the goodwill of Israel.

The flow of materials

Benjamin Netanyahu's government keeps issuing warnings about the "dual" usages of certain construction materials. The Israelis suspect they may be diverted for military use, to build tunnels for Hamas attacks, or to make rockets.

Israel is therefore demanding scrupulous watch over imports of materials to and their use in the Gaza Strip. The government is even asking for a file to be created to keep track of individuals and companies wishing to acquire such materials. Many of the Palestinian economic and political players judge such generalized control to be impossible. They are demanding the end of the blockade rather than its institutionalization.

Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority have, however, accepted the presence on the territory of UN observers who can offer guarantees to Israel. But some at UNRWA are skeptical in view of the size of the task at hand. Rafiq Abed, who has worked at UNRWA for 26 years and is currently in charge of piloting major infrastructure projects, explains that the agency "is working on 30 projects at some hundred locations in the Gaza Strip. In total, between 120 and 150 members of our personnel, on all levels, work on controlling the aggregates. We can't even imagine what would be necessary if there were 100 projects."

The president of the entrepreneurs' union in Gaza, Nabil Abu Muaileq, also believes that a complete overview of imported materials is impossible. "You need 10,000 tons of cement per day to rebuild Gaza," he says. "If only 1% escaped control because it was diverted by drivers, workers, deliverymen, that would already be 100 tons gone missing. It would be much better to open the borders, make it possible for people to go work in Israel or Egypt, to live better, to travel. It would work out. Otherwise tomorrow morning or in a year's time things will explode again here."

A more political argument can be added to that, says Omar Shaban, director of Pal-Think, the Gaza-based "think-and-do tank." If the UN took charge of keeping tabs on the materials, "people would no longer perceive the benefits of a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. It would come across as weak."

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What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

Image of a kid wearing a blue striped sweater, using an ipad.

Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

Julián de Zubiría Samper


BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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