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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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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