This week, the Senate votes on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would increase the Pentagon’s budget by $37 billion to a whopping $778 billion for the fiscal year 2022. Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders criticized his colleagues for supporting such a bloated military budget, given the deficit and national debt, as well as the lack of political will to expand Medicare, guarantee paid family leave, and address the climate crisis. He then introduced an amendment to the bill that would address the pressing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the seemingly intractable conflict.
In September, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid proposed a plan for development in Gaza in exchange for Hamas’s commitment to long-term calm. If Hamas committed to these terms, Lapid said, “the electricity system will be repaired, gas will be connected, a water desalination plant will be built, significant improvements to the healthcare system and a rebuilding of housing and transport infrastructure will take place.” The proposal might have gone as hoped, but renewed violence between Israel and Hamas flared just hours after the minister’s remarks.
Amid multiple all-out wars, ongoing skirmishes, and a 14-year blockade, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is now so severe that about 50 percent of children suffer from water-related infections and 12 percent of deaths of young children in Gaza are linked to intestinal infections from contaminated water.
Gaza never should have gotten to this point. After the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) was implemented to expedite reconstruction, address Israeli security concerns, provide assurance to donors, create jobs in Gaza, and achieve progress toward lifting the blockade and securing a long-term durable peace. While it may have been conceived in good faith, upon implementation, the GRM only served to institutionalize Israel’s blockade and total control.
During the 51-day war in 2014, 7,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed and another 10,000 were severely damaged. The GRM should have facilitated their swift construction and repair—but the mechanism is so cumbersome, bureaucratic, and ineffective that four and a half years after it was implemented, 20 percent of Gaza’s affected homes remained unusable and 13,000 Gazans were still homeless.
Israeli bombings exacerbating the GRM’s failure to facilitate reconstruction. The May 2021 war destroyed 2,200 homes entirely, damaged 37,000, and made 58,000 people homeless. And because Israel has the final say on GRM activities, restrictions on the entry of goods have been used as collective punishment.
In May 2016, Israel imposed a 45-day ban on cement and wood plank imports. In 2017, it reduced fuel supplies, resulting in Gaza’s having to release untreated sewage directly into the sea. In July 2018, in retribution for weekly, mostly nonviolent protests at the border fence, Israel allowed in only food and medicine—and even reduced that to a case-by-case basis. In August 2019, it halved the amount of fuel that could enter Gaza.
In July 2021, with families in dire need following the May war, Israel delayed the entry of 25 truckloads of Qatari-funded fuel. That same year, as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged Gaza, it prevented the import of 14 medical imaging devices.
As the UN predicted in 2018, Gaza is today, by all measures, unlivable. The coastal aquifer has been so polluted by over-pumping and wastewater contamination that 97 percent of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. More than half of Gaza’s population lives in poverty; unemployment is around 50 percent; 62 percent of Gazans are food insecure; and electricity is sporadic.
Given the dire crisis that is the Gaza strip, it was welcome news when Senator Sanders introduced the Report on the Humanitarian Impact of the Gaza Blockade and the Feasibility of Ending the Blockade amendment to the FY2022 NDAA. The amendment, crafted by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, called for a report on the humanitarian impact of Israeli restrictions on movement, access, and goods in and out of Gaza, as well as a study of the feasibility of replacing the GRM with a mechanism modeled after the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM).
Though Sanders’s amendment didn’t make it into the final draft of the NDAA, its introduction and suggestion to replace the GRM were essential. Like the GRM’s stated intention to address Israel’s security concerns, UNVIM was designed to ensure that imports into Yemen do not contain smuggled weapons. Unlike the GRM, because it is UN-operated, the UNVIM has seen success. Since the UNVIM was operationalized, despite expected problems from combatants on both sides of Yemen’s war, over 5 million metric tons of cargo have been discharged into Yemen, including 2 million tons of food and just over 1 million tons of fuel.
The people of Gaza cannot afford another all-out Israeli war. Nor can they afford not to finish rebuilding before the next war, which will almost certainly occur, barring significant political change. Whether by attaching the Sanders amendment to another piece of legislation or by introducing it as a stand-alone bill, an evaluation and replacement of GRM is necessary. The people of Gaza can’t wait.