Twenty months after becoming Middle East envoy for the Quartet, Tony Blair visited Gaza for the first time on Sunday. His visit came a day before international donors gathered in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for a conference on the Gaza reconstruction effort. Although the Obama administration is pledging $900 million (Dh3.3 billion) of aid, none of the money will go to rebuilding Gaza, the Los Angeles Times reported. In an interview with the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, Mr Blair was asked: "How can Gaza be reconstructed if Israel doesn't allow things like steel, glass, concrete - all the other things you need to rebuild a place?" Mr Blair responded: "Well it can't be, so we're going to have to make sure that we get the blockade lifted and the crossings opened so that the material can come in. I'm mean, just literally a hundred yards or so, a couple of hundred yards from here is the sewage treatment plant which is absolutely necessary to put in proper shape, otherwise there will be people that will die as a result of not having it. And you need obviously the materials to come in. You need the steel, you need the cement, you need the other construction materials to come in in order to get it done. "The one thing that is very clear about this situation is, it's tragic to hear the experiences of the people who have been through the trauma of the conflict here. You can see the devastation and the destruction, but unless we get a viable basis for opening up Gaza sustainably, we'll be back in this situation again." The BBC asked: "Now that you've seen Gaza the way that it is, do you think that the damage that Israel has done here and the blood that it shed as well is proportionate to the danger that its people faced?" Mr Blair said: "Well I just don't think that you can even contemplate the concept of proportionality when you've got young children dying in large numbers, so..." "So it wasn't proportionate," the interviewer suggested. "Well I don't think it's a - I don't think anybody can come here and not be appalled at what has happened," Mr Blair said. The New York Times noted: "Mr Blair was the latest in a series of senior international figures to have visited Gaza since Israel ended a devastating 22-day military campaign there on Jan 18. "The United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and Senator John Kerry were among the recent visitors. On Sunday, Douglas Alexander, the British minister for international development, and Juan Jose Daboub, managing director of the World Bank, were also there. "None of them met with representatives of Hamas, the Islamic group classified as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union." In spite of the international effort to exclude Hamas from direct diplomatic negotiations, it appears that prior to the war Hamas made its own efforts to talk to Israel's leadership and a member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's own family was involved in relaying messages from the Palestinian group. The Observer reported: "Confirmation of attempts to establish a direct line of communication between Hamas and Israel - and the willingness of senior figures in Hamas to contemplate direct negotiations - fundamentally alters the narrative of the build-up to the war in Gaza which claimed more than 1,300 Palestinian lives and led to about a dozen Israeli deaths. "Most remarkable is the story of the involvement of a member of the prime minister's family in the passing of messages to Olmert about the case of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. "Although The Observer is aware of the identity of the family member and full details of the role played, it has agreed to protect anonymity. Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israel peace activist, was at the centre of attempts to open negotiations. Baskin was in touch with senior members of Hamas, Israeli officials and Olmert, via the member of his family." In the aftermath of the war on Gaza little long-term reconstruction has taken place and aid received has barely been enough to keep residents fed and temporarily housed. The Financial Times said: "both the Palestinian Authority and international experts agree the money will make little difference in Gaza unless Israel agrees to open its border crossings into the strip. "Fearing that Hamas will benefit from an increased flow of goods into the territory, Israel has so far only allowed a small quantity of humanitarian supplies into the strip. "The crucial problem at the moment is not related to funding but to access," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner the European Union external affairs commissioner. "In the aftermath of the crisis, a clear priority remains the immediate and unconditional reopening of all Gaza crossings on a regular and predicable basis." "Mrs Ferrero-Waldner, who has pledged US$554m in aid, made it clear that while she hoped Israel would allow far more humanitarian aid into Gaza, it was unlikely that materials for the reconstruction of the territory would enter until there was a new government there controlled by the PA. "Shipments of fuel and food have gradually increased since January, but there is a strict ban on the import of goods such as cement, spare parts and other materials." Aid workers with operations in Gaza have told Human Rights Watch that Israeli procedures since the ceasefire started were making it virtually impossible to plan for aid deliveries more than 24 hours in advance. On several occasions Israeli authorities refused to allow passage of pre-scheduled aid shipments hours before they were supposed to arrive, they said. "Israel continues to block goods on trucks from entering Karni, the one border crossing point with sophisticated security screening equipment and the capacity to handle up to 750 trucks per day. Sufa crossing, which can also accommodate trucks on a smaller scale, also remains closed. Instead, Israel requires all trucks to enter through Kerem Shalom, located near Gaza's southern tip, where every item on trucks must be unloaded, inspected, repackaged and reloaded, with a 'handling fee' of US$1,000 per truck. "In the weeks since heavy fighting ceased on January 18, Israel has arbitrarily refused entry to items like chickpeas, macaroni, wheat flour, notebooks for students, freezer appliances, generators and water pumps, and cooking gas, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said." Daoud Kuttab, blogging with the US secretary of state's press corps in Sharm el-Sheikh, said: "In a press briefing on the eve of the 'International conference in support of the Palestinian economy of the reconstruction of Gaza' Robert Wood, the acting US state department spokesman failed to convince the US traveling press corps and a Palestinian blogger that America is indeed coming to help the people of Gaza. "Wood tried to describe how the 'over $900 million' that will be pledged in the conference to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh Monday will be spent. But it was clear that most of this money will not make it to Gaza. The spokesman was also not sure how much of the 900 million dollars are old money (already pledged by previous administration) or new money. "Apparently only one third of the monies to be pledged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will make it to Gaza. Wood told the press corps that $300 million will go for urgent humanitarian needs in response to the UN Gaza appeal. He indicated that this money will be channeled through UN agencies, and through USAID. A further $200 will be pledged to help cover basic budget support of the Palestinian Authority. The PA is expecting a $1.6 billion deficit in 2009. A further $400 million will be provided to support the Palestinian Authority's Reform and Development Plan. These funds will go into institutional building as well as in support of the public security efforts of General Dayton. Dayton, a senior US military officer has been leading an effort to revamp and rebuild the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. "Wood and the US secretary of state appear to be camouflaging their plans to bolster the Palestinian Authority's grip of power in the West Bank with the waving of a hefty pledge, the majority of which will never make it to help the people of Gaza."
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