Gaza – Israel rockets blasted through the Al-Shawa and Hosari towers, housing several media offices, in the centre of Gaza City on November 18, wounding six journalists; one of whom lost one of his feet.
Abdul-Aziz al-Afifi is a photojournalist who survived three missiles that hit the towers, having witnessed the evacuation operations through his camera.
“The only staircase in the tower was crammed with electrical generators, covered in debris, mattresses, and cardboard boxes,” Afifi tells Felesteen Online. “The medics had trouble getting the injured out of the building. Four were needed to carry each of the wounded, when usually only two are needed to carry a stretcher.”
I visited the towers before the last attack. Its rear stairway, supposedly for emergencies, was being used as a storage area – full of boxes, mattresses, small electrical generators and gasoline containers – rendering it useless when the time to evacuate the wounded during the Israeli bombardment of the tower came.
Abu Akram Abdel-Aal suffered a head injury on June 1 2012, not far from Al-Shawa and Hosari towers, when the glass ceiling of the elevator he was using in Al-Jawhara building shattered, after the cabin with four passengers suffered a malfunction and dropped 15 meters.
“It plummeted and shook, the light went out and the ceiling fell on our heads,” Abdel-Aal explains. “We were rescued and taken to the hospital fifteen minutes later, where another passenger and I were treated for head injuries.”
In a third incident, three citizens suffocated due to a fire in the Dawood building in Gaza City center in mid-June.
A month earlier, in Al-Maqwasi towers to the west of the city, 11-year-old Ibrahim al-Ali lost his life when he was “squashed” between the cabin and the wall, while trying to exit the elevator following a sudden power outage.
During the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, an elderly couple, Rizk and Rawda Abul-Kas, were stuck in the Abul-Kheir residential building and bled to death, after the only staircase in the building was destroyed with a direct rocket hit, making it impossible to reach them.
Those who lost their lives or were wounded lacked awareness of safety procedures, but they were also victims of investors who clearly exploited loopholes in Gaza’s building safety regulations. They disregarded the safety of citizens and benefitted from the Gaza municipality’s neglect of the issue, under the pretext that people need housing more than they need safety procedures.
The incidents documented during this investigation, from May to November 2012, are not unlike many others which occurred before those dates and continue to this day. However, they are not being documented by any specialised body.
The 2012 Report on Civil Defense does not classify victims of residential buildings, but it does mention the rescue of 20 citizens who were stuck in elevators, fires extinguished in 316 buildings due to Israeli shelling, and dealing with 263 cases of electrical shock, without identifying whether the buildings in question were for residential or commercial use.
However, the case can be made that the lives of residents living in tall buildings seem to be at risk due to a lack of enforcement of safety regulations.
In the Field
We visited more than ten tall residential buildings (six floor and above) in Gaza City, looking for fire extinguishers and alarms, emergency exits, or even for shelters. But we did not find any. The smallest of the buildings could house at least 18 families, or more than 50 people, if we assume each family only has three members.
Shourouk, Jawhara, and Falasteen “towers” are three examples of tall buildings that lack safety regulations. Under the Palestinian construction law, they are classified as “buildings,” but are called “towers” by Gazans.
The elevator in one of the buildings was not working due to a power outage, and there was no backup generator. We used our mobile phone lights to make our way up the stairs. After the first floor, we discovered that the building had two main stairways but no emergency staircase, in addition to the lack of extinguishers and fire alarms. The roof was jammed with satellite dishes and lacked electrical grounding installations.
The other buildings did not fare much better. We asked construction workers on new building sites about safety regulations, but they were unable to provide us with any answers, since they were not informed about safety regulations and standards.
The Civil Defense Director of Security and Safety, Wael al-Loulou, maintains that only 60 percent of buildings in Gaza – which are between six and 18 stories high – have been licensed by the municipality. Only 6 percent of those have a full licence – awarded to buildings that apply safety regulations. This means that the remaining buildings do not apply safety and security standards, according to the latest study by the Civil Defence, covering 615 residential and commercial buildings in Gaza City.
Wael Al-Loulou points out that 90 percent of these towers were constructed under the former authorities, prior to the 2006 elections. The total number of installations in Gaza by 2012 is around 49.000, according to the head of the Central Bureau of Statistics, Ola Awad.
Investors resort to circumventing Palestinian law by building one or two mezzanines and renting them as residential floors. This way a building with five residential floors can be increased to nine. However, the Gaza municipality ignores the issue under the pretext that citizens need the vertical expansion, even allowing them to increase the area of the mezzanines.
“Tower owners and investors think they can go ahead with the construction without the safety regulations when they receive the preliminary permits. This is evident in that only 9 percent of Gaza’s buildings comply with the regulations and the rest just ignore them,” Loulou explains.
“We monitor the towers through inspection tours resulting in summons and promises signed by the violating tower owners to fix the mistakes or add the safety features, if possible.”
The tall building code applied in Palestine requires that “the structure should be 16 meters above ground and contain more than five floors.”
Gaza municipality, however, is giving permits to buildings with five floors, a basement, one or two mezzanines, and a roof – without imposing safety regulations – and classifies them as “residential buildings,” according to Loulou.
Lack of Culture
Buildings of five floors, a mezzanine, a basement, and a rooftop end up being nine stories high, but are given permits without imposing safety procedures, according to President of the Contractors Union, Usama Kuhail. He says that residents are also to blame, indicating that they “lack the culture of safety and prevention and do not inquire whether the building is capable of withstanding dangers. So they are easily duped.”
“The bureaucracy of acquiring a building license leads some investors to resort to construction without going through the municipality,” he adds. “Especially as follow-up inspections come after the completion of construction and not in the early stages.”
If some developers are caught, they try to circumvent the law by applying some regulations, but with a lower degree of safety, like installing metal emergency staircases and a few faulty extinguishers.
Safety regulations carried out by some towers are ineffective. Fire extinguishers, water hoses, and alarms might be installed, but they are not always functional. In addition, the water and electricity rooms do not conform with any of the regulations. Their walls are not insulated and the doors are not fire resistant. This puts the risk in the various towers around Gaza at 100 percent, according to Kuhail, who maintains that a few of them contain fire exits or escapes.
Kuhail indicates that the Gaza municipality is doing what it calls “applying the law” to buildings that are in violation, but without forcing their owners to rebuild them according to regulations. He considers this to be a blatant disregard for citizens’ lives, noting that if the municipality removes one building to set an example, real estate developers are more likely to start abiding by the rules in an attempt to secure their income.
The widespread violations identified by this investigation and confirmed by the Civil Defence Directorate can be attributed to the lack of a strong supervisory mechanism and effective penalties against violators. In a study published in July 2012, entitled “Evaluation of Security and Safety Measures in High Residential Buildings,” researcher Hassan Hammouda mentions that the delay in issuing regulations for multi-storey buildings in Gaza from 1994 to 1995, had led to the construction of 150 buildings, which violated safety standards at the time.
He indicates that the absence of committees for cooperation and coordination between the sides concerned with monitoring tall residential buildings has weakened field observations on the building boom.
Hammouda’s study maintains that Palestinian law lacks deterrent penalties for violators, including a small fine of 500 Dinars or jail for no more than six months. This kind of penalty will not deter an owner of property worth millions of dollars.
During his research, Hammouda saw a building concierge sleeping in the electricity room, alongside a high-voltage electricity board. The room also hold a water pump and the building’s reservoir tanks.
Hammouda’s paper points to the lack of awareness about living in multi-level buildings as a reasons behind the Palestinian law’s neglect of safety precautions and the primary motivation for investors not to apply them.
The Violations are “Seven Years Old”
Speaking to the reporter, engineer Faisal Abu Shahla, an investor in property development, maintains that he prefers to construct two “residential buildings” instead of one “tower,” to evade time- and money-consuming safety regulations.
Abu Shahla is specialised in constructing donor-funded schools and health facilities. He maintains that developers are not bound by law to abide by safety requirements, since the Palestinian law for tall buildings and Gaza’s municipality does not force developers to comply.
Engineer Moenes Fares, head of the Gaza municipality’s Urban Planning Directorate, which is responsible for issuing licenses for residential buildings in the city. Moenes Fares says that most violations in residential towers are erected more than seven years ago; before the tenth (Hamas) government took power in the Strip. Under the new government, he maintains, developers started adhering to the provisions.
However, those “provisions,” as indicated earlier, are ineffective and allow developers to avoid supervision.
“We are trying to rehabilitate safety precautions in existing towers,” he explains. “Under the tenth government, no tower was built without its owners abiding with their implementation prior to receiving the permit.”
Nevertheless, he justifies issuing permits for residential building over five floors high, which use the mezzanines as floors and sell them as residential units, without abiding by safety precautions. “Residential buildings around Gaza are not obliged by the law to follow safety procedures. This is why we do not monitor them. If we allow an additional floor to be built, we would help solve the problem of population density,” Fares justifies. He maintains that he supports the building boom in Gaza, indicating that people’s need for vertical expansion calls for a new law.
The Law Does Not Stipulate
For his part, Fares puts the blame on the Palestinian Legislative Council who are responsible for creating laws that force buildings to abide by safety standards. “We are not a legislative body,” he says. “The Palestinian law, which has been in force since 1995, does not stipulate that buildings should abide by safety provisions. It has not changed and it needs a legislative effort.”
However, Fares admits that his municipality has not sent any recommendations to the government to change or amend the law.
In addition, the municipality does not impose any fines on building owners although it imposes a permit. Each meter of developed land costs 10 Israeli shekels, around $2.61. When the final permit is issued, developers can get 2 shekels back, about half a dollar, on each meter. This means that a 100 meter plot license costs about $216, and the owner can recover around $50.
The municipality of Gaza allowed an extra floor in residential buildings, making them five instead of four. Fares justifies this by saying that “the decision came as a result of the urgent need to find homes for the people of Gaza Strip, due to its small size and increasing population.”
Commenting on the additional floor, seen by Palestinian engineers as a way of bending the law, Fares says that his municipality “replaced the permitted mezzanine in residential buildings with a floor.” The difference between them is “that a floor can take up a wider – horizontal – space than the mezzanine, since the mezzanine must be the same size as the area it is built on,” he adds.
As for applying the law, “it is an amount of money paid on land not ready for development and has nothing to do with building violations,” Fares explains. “An owner of a completed building that violates the regulations pays a fine and fixes what he can. If it is not completed, he is forced to rebuild it according to the law.” However, the municipality of Gaza defines an incomplete building as a building without any complete floors.
In light of the law’s inadequacy in enforcing safety regulations in high residential buildings, Gaza’s growing need for vertical expansion, the facilities given to developers who construct buildings a little smaller than towers to avoid safety regulations, and the risk it entails to the residents of the almost one thousand buildings of this kind, Palestinian legislators need to issue a new law requiring that buildings comply with safety regulations, like the towers spread around the Strip.
This report was written with the support of ARIJ, under the supervision of Abdullah al-Saafin.