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Nation & World

Donors Look To Keep Supplies From Militants In Gaza's Rebuilding Efforts

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the Gaza Strip, officials say more than a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed in the fighting between Hamas and Israel. But donor countries and Israel want to make sure new building supplies don't end up in the hands of militants. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports on how they've been trying to track supplies for years and how Gazans hope for something better now.

MANSOUR ABU GHADEER: (Through interpreter) This is my house.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Mansour Abu Ghadeer (ph) sleeps on a sofa outside what used to be his house. He says an Israeli missile destroyed it in the middle of the night. He's strung up a banner over the rubble with his name and phone number to mark his property, hoping aid will come sometime.

ABU GHADEER: (Through interpreter) When? No one knows. Only God maybe knows.

ESTRIN: Gaza has been here before. The last war Hamas fought with Israel was in 2014. Countries pledged millions of dollars to rebuild, but it still wasn't all repaired. It can take months for Israel to approve building materials to reach Gaza. There's 24-hour surveillance to make sure cement and rebar go to building homes, schools and hospitals, not to Hamas's tunnels or weapons.

MAHMOUD IMWASI: we will show you the camera that we have fixed just in this area. This one. This one.

ESTRIN: Yeah.

Eight night-vision cameras film the storage rooms in this warehouse that Mahmoud Imwasi (ph) oversees. U.N. supervisors inspect the footage, count every bag of cement and ask questions to make sure that all the bags are accounted for.

IMWASI: Where you use it, and why you will use it.

ESTRIN: All of this is called the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. It was set up after the 2014 war to let the U.N. monitor materials sent in by international donors to keep them out of the hands of Hamas. Despite all of this monitoring, as the latest fighting proves, Hamas managed to rearm anyway.

MKHAIMER ABU SADA: Seven years after 2014, look - Hamas is much more stronger.

ESTRIN: Gaza political scientist Mkhaimer Abu Sada.

ABU SADA: They have more tunnels. They have more missile capabilities. Where did that come from? We don't know.

ESTRIN: What we do know, he says, is that Egypt improved its relations with Hamas a few years ago and opened its border with Gaza to more goods.

ABU SADA: It's not a secret thing. The Israelis knew about it. Cement, gravel, steel, whatever you want to call it, was coming from Rafah.

ESTRIN: Egypt's Rafah Border Crossing is Gaza's back door, where building materials are shipped privately and flow with fewer restrictions than the international aid. It's unclear why one border would restrict goods so much while the other doesn't, but it's easy to buy supplies on the market. We visit a cement dealer.

In the corner, we see a whole stack of bags of cement. There's another stack. There's another stack. There's another stack. And here you go, you see, says it on the bag. Made in Egypt.

We don't know where Hamas gets its supplies. It promises not to touch international aid. The group's leader in Gaza says Hamas has its own sources for its military arsenal. Israel acknowledges the system has not kept Hamas from getting stronger, and military spokesman Jonathan Conricus says even tighter control is needed.

JONATHAN CONRICUS: It is extremely unfortunate to see so much cement, metal, construction material abused for military purposes at the expense of Gazan civilians. We think that there is a desperate need to improve the mechanisms that are currently in place.

ESTRIN: But aid groups say the monitoring system was already too restrictive, slowing down Gaza's development and punishing civilians. One Palestinian contractor thinks there's a better strategy for preventing war. Usama Kuhail (ph) says Israel should relax the border not just for goods but also for people.

USAMA KUHAIL: (Through interpreter) If they allowed us to work and travel and give opportunities for a good life, it would give us hope. People would oppose war, so they could protect what they gained.

ESTRIN: And Mahmoud Imwasi from the cement warehouse has a message for Hamas.

IMWASI: I hope they can deal with the Israeli side in political channels and in peace because we are tired for both sides. I hope they can consider the suffering of the people here in Gaza.

ESTRIN: Gazans now live among the rubble, while the U.S., Israel and other mediators try to figure out how to get aid to Gaza but not to Hamas. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.