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This weekend in Cairo, Palestinian leaders will ask donors for $4 billion in part to rebuild tens of thousands of homes and businesses bombed in the Gaza War. The rebuilding will take a lot of cement. To keep it from being used in Hamas tunnels, Israel has limited cement supplies to only approved projects. But some cement does manage to slip through the cracks, as NPR's Emily Harris found.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Gaza businessman Maher Abu Ghanema is trying to rebuild his currency exchange shop in Gaza City. It's slow going.
MAHER ABU GHANEMA: (Through translator) I need at least three tons of cement.
HARRIS: He found one ton, but that took two weeks.
GHANEMA: (Through translator) Whatever we got is from the black market. And it costs four or five times higher than the original price. Plus, it's low-quality.
HARRIS: There is a black market for cement in Gaza because it's not allowed in freely. Citing security, Israel's system has permitted only international organizations to bring in only pre-approved amounts for pre-approved projects - none to be sold in local shops. Last week, we went looking for cement in Gaza.
We're from American radio. We're looking for cement. Do you have any cement?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. (Through translator) We don't have any, not even through the black market. We cannot - not even a single bag.
HARRIS: So we cross the street in search of contraband cement.
Hi, I'm Emily. We're looking for cement. Do you have any cement?
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through translator) We don't have any cement.
HARRIS: But we see a few half-hidden bags marked white cement.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Yes, they have some cement, not very much, half a ton, actually.
HARRIS: Half a ton - that's 20 bags. Eventually, owner Amin Abu Khmer says he can often buy a ton or two a day. Some guy driving a horse cart brings it by, he says. That is all he says he knows.
Israel isn't the only country bordering Gaza. Until smuggling tunnels from Egypt were mostly shut down last year, construction materials and a lot else came in underground. And big projects funded by the Gulf Arab country of Qatar delivered cement legally from Egypt starting about a year ago.
AHMED ABU RAS: Our grant - it covers many sectors, like housing, the roads, infrastructure, roads.
HARRIS: Ahmed Abu Ras manages the Qatar-funded projects in Gaza. He says to make sales worth the while of the Egyptian exporting firm he had to agree to buy more cement than his projects needed.
RAS: Now what I can do with a lot of amount of cement, you know? After two months it's expired. So that the excess of amount of cement, we handed it to the Ministry of Economy.
HARRIS: The Gaza Ministry of Economy, run at that time by the Hamas-led government. Abu Ras says the ministry tracked the cement, but clearly there have been several potential channels for cement to get to the private market or to militants. And now, Gaza needs more cement than ever before.
JAMES RAWLEY: Obviously, we're going to a higher scale.
HARRIS: James Rawley is the deputy U.N. special coordinator for the Mideast peace process. His office helped broker a new agreement under which Israel will allow much more construction material into Gaza than before and allow it on the private market. Only pre-approved contractors can participate. The U.N. will spot-check around 5 percent of small, private construction but track every item brought in for big projects like hospitals. So how foolproof will this be?
RAWLEY: To say anything is going to be 100 percent foolproof would be foolish.
HARRIS: But he thinks the system will meet Israeli demands to keep cement out of the hands of militants. Contractors will be disbarred from the program if cement, rebar or other materials they sign off on are misused.
RAWLEY: If you're a supplier from the West Bank or elsewhere and you're disbarred, that means you're going to lose a lot of money.
HARRIS: Gazan Rafiq Hassouna says his construction company already lost tens of millions of dollars due to border restrictions. He thinks they should end, saying supervision did not stop militants from building concrete-lined tunnels used to attack Israel during the war.
GAZAN RAFIQ HASSOUNA: Why not to open the border for material freely? You have now seven years of supervision. Did you prevent Hamas to make its military construction? No.
HARRIS: U.N. officials hope the new rules may lead to fully opening Gaza's borders. Israel is not ready for that yet. But Israel's military chief of staff said recently that consolidating the cease-fire depends on improving Gaza's economy. International donors say they want assurances Israel will act on that before opening their wallets. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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