Issue 44 - Article 3

Gaza: challenges and adaptation

October 6, 2009
Rolf Holmboe, Danish Representative to the Palestinian Authority

In recent years, Gaza has suffered recurrent bouts of conflict. In 2006, a major Israeli military operation was launched after the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In 2007, Hamas took power following a year of rising tension culminating in a short civil war with the rival Fatah movement. Renewed tensions between Hamas and Israel escalated into the Gaza War in December 2008 and January 2009. Despite an uneasy ceasefire, no one believes that the conflict is over, and everyone knows that next time will be worse. Meanwhile, the Israeli restrictions on access and the movement of goods and people have shattered Gaza’s economy. This blockade, combined with the fundamental struggle between the nationalist Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas has encouraged the growth of Islamic radicalisation. This combination of external and internal instability is changing the very fabric of society in Gaza, making religion the ultimate yardstick for any public or private activity and narrowing the space for individual choice.

The challenge posed by these conflicts makes the humanitarian and development processes much more difficult, disempowers societal development carriers (the middle classes and the private sector) and physically destroys humanitarian and development efforts. It takes away the very basis for engaging in self-development, when the population remains preoccupied with just making do. The challenge is to adapt humanitarian and development efforts to counter processes of de-development in society.

A project challenged by war

Denmark has been implementing a local development project in Gaza since 1999 – the SMDM (Support to Municipal Development and Management). It covers 11 out of Gaza’s 25 municipalities, and four of the eight refugee camps in the ‘Middle Area’ of Gaza, between Gaza City in the north and Khan Younis in the south. The project focuses on developing the capacity of municipalities to build and improve physical infrastructure, improve financial management and planning as well as engage in community development.

The 2006 Israeli military operation hit the Middle Area hard. Basic infrastructure and homes were destroyed. The municipalities had to respond to more immediate and short-term challenges, and their engagement in development priorities became difficult. The project faced a choice: wait until immediate needs had been satisfied, or adapt to bridge the divide between short-term necessity and long-term development. Denmark opted to create a quick ‘side project’ to assist in the emergency restoration of public services and the rehabilitation of public and private infrastructure, and to help the municipalities to continue to function. Likewise, during the Gaza War in 2008–2009 Denmark used project funds to implement an emergency package of humanitarian assistance. Among other things, the project supported the paediatric ward and intensive care unit of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Hospital, the only hospital in the Middle Area. The hospital was taking in five to six times its capacity, mostly children, and referral to the over-worked al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City was hazardous. The project also supplied tools, animals and seedlings to help farmers in the largely destroyed Wadi Gaza municipality to restore their livelihoods.

A project challenged by social struggle

Local government is one of the key battlegrounds in the struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The pressure on municipalities and civil society organisations to conform to the new societal orientation in Gaza is intense. Municipalities – especially non-Hamas ones – have less and less funding and support with which to carry out their main tasks. Meanwhile, Hamas itself is focusing on providing personalised social services, targeted youth work and religious education. The organisation has seen a dramatic increase in its financial capacity. Municipalities are losing relevance as elected service providers for the population, as the politicised ‘parallel government’ controlled by Hamas slowly takes over their functions. Municipalities are further undermined as donors channel emergency responses through external organisations, and in many cases do not even engage them in decision-making. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor donors provide support for essential municipal service provision, such as water and electricity.

In the light of these changes, the SMDM is placing much stronger emphasis on ‘community development’. The objective is to strengthen the positive connections between municipalities and citizens by enabling municipalities to respond to the emerging priorities of the population. If the municipalities do not respond, the politicised ‘parallel structures’ will, undermining the municipalities in the eyes of the population. Community development in this context encompasses activities carried out through local government units to develop social, cultural and community infrastructure, support social, cultural and community activities and help socially and economically deprived families (known as Social Hardship Cases – SHC).

These activities are often on a very small scale, below $15,000. The focus is on enablement: support should allow communities to carry out an activity themselves, not carry it out for them. Their ownership is the key. All work is based on the voluntary contributions of citizens (in Gaza there is a strong tradition of community involvement of this sort). In fact, most financial support goes on buying equipment and material that will allow municipalities and community groups to go through with the project. This has enabled municipalities to support rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure, improve medical centres and establish parks. Parks may seem a strange priority, but there are precious few places in the incarcerated Gaza where families can relax, so they are extremely popular. People consistently ask for recreational facilities such as sports clubs, cultural centres (with computer labs allowing access to the outside world) and libraries. Municipalities have also focused activities on women and young people. Both groups face particular challenges: women’s freedoms are being constrained, while young people face the highest rates of unemployment in Gaza, and have few options other than crime, militant work or martyrdom if they want to provide for their families. A wide range of small, targeted vocational training activities give people outlets and extra opportunities. Engaging the population in public awareness campaigns on issues of public concern is also high on the priority list, including campaigns to inform children of the dangers of unexploded ordnance and proper environmental behaviour. In many of these projects, NGOs play a key role as implementing partners.

Finally, this work allows municipalities to support struggling families or groups – in particular large households with unemployed parents or war-deprived groups. The assistance has focused on helping women to contribute to their families. Chicken-, rabbit- and beekeeping use locally available resources, and the products are marketable. A simple support package can provide a family of 12 with 400–600 Shekels a month – in many cases the only monetary income the family receives. Other activities focus on ameliorating the situation of war-handicapped or the elderly. Again, local NGOs are key partners in implementing this support.


A key lesson of the work of the SMDM is that outside support to alleviate humanitarian emergencies must be ‘owned’ by local governments and communities. Communities are always disempowered by the fact of an emergency; the response should not contribute to this disempowerment. Integrating emergency alleviation within existing humanitarian stabilisation or development efforts saves time and increases the effectiveness of the response. Enabling local government to play a key role (for instance by involving municipal councils in decision-making, rather than as direct implementers) re-empowers local governments in a situation of stress and frees capacity to re-engage in humanitarian stabilisation and development activities beyond the here-and-now.

A second lesson in a fragile state context is that building strong and dynamic relations between municipalities and citizens is important in safeguarding the whole democratic system of local government. Municipal/community engagement in community development is therefore complementary to stabilisation efforts as well as development projects, and should be an integral part of both. The main focus should be on working with elected municipal councils as the central body for the local democratic process, in a way that does not allow for the appropriation of activities by political parties.

The ability of secular, elected municipalities to react to emergency needs and to popular priorities is key. Responding to emergencies through external institutions or NGOs, and not directly with municipalities and municipal councils, may simply disempower local government and thereby inadvertently pave the way for politicised ‘parallel governments’. Establishing a strong decision-making structure, whereby communities can submit proposals to municipal councils, for instance through open meetings or petitions, and allowing councils to respond and make decisions within a simple and established framework, has been shown to be a key element in strengthening the democratic processes of local government.

This in no way precludes partnerships with NGOs in implementing activities agreed between municipalities and citizens. In fact, the engagement of NGOs is in most cases highly desirable and necessary, not least because they have implementation capacity and are informed by ideas of fairness and social responsibility. In the SMDM experience, a very fruitful partnership has been achieved between municipalities, the population and local NGOs, allowing both for municipality/community ownership and for the efficient and effective delivery of community development.

A final consideration concerns the role of external donors. Ideally, the donor should step back from the decision-making process in community development and limit itself to establishing the proper framework for local decision-making (for instance in municipal councils) and for the allocation of resources. It is also important that municipalities/communities are made responsible for monitoring projects – this is an integral part of the ‘process of ownership’. This of course does not preclude donor engagement with processes or activities, as long as the role of elected local government as the responsible body is maintained. Donor engagement could contribute to a high degree of local pride in people’s achievements, empowering communities and giving them some hope for the future. When it comes to outside involvement, the donor principle of least is best should be followed.

The ability to adapt quickly to integrate emergency responses within development efforts can bridge the divide between emergency and development needs. In Gaza, this is of paramount importance. Strengthening local government and enhancing positive relations between local government units (such as municipalities or village councils) and citizens through ‘community development’ is one response to the challenge posed by the societal divide, and can be an effective way of safeguarding the democratic system as a whole.

Rolf M. H. P. Holmboe has been Denmark’s Representative to the Palestinian Authority since 2005. His email address is:


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