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Egyptian president opens Gaza conference

An international donors' meeting, from which Hamas is excluded, is expected to raise at least US$2.8 billion for Gaza.

The Egyptian president today opened an international donors' conference on reconstructing the war-torn Gaza Strip, meant to raise at least US$2.8 billion (Dh10.28bn) for the battered coastal area from 80 donor countries and international organisations. Hosni Mubarak addressed the gathering that included the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, along with 45 foreign ministers. Gaza's Hamas government has not been invited to the conference. Among the high-profile visitors was Hillary Clinton, who is on her first trip to the Middle East as US secretary of state. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also addressed the gathering, saying he visited Gaza and saw with his "own eyes the agony of the people" there.

In his opening speech, Mr Mubarak said the "priority is to reach a truce between Israel and Palestinians" and said Egypt would continue its mediation between the two, including for a more permanent Gaza truce. "I see a momentum in peace efforts. I look forward that this year will be the year of peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians," Mr Mubarak said. He added that Egypt was trying to get Israel to "modify its position on reaching a truce" - comments referring to Israel's demand that a truce be linked to the release of a captured Israeli soldier.

Mr Mubarak warned Hamas not to treat the donors' pledges as a "conquest of war" and cautioned that rebuilding Gaza following Israel's three-week offensive in January will depend on several factors, including a long-term truce and the opening up of the area's closed border crossings. He called on Palestinian factions to work toward reconciliation and forming a unity government to oversee the rebuilding.

Taking the stand, Mr Sarkozy urged "responsible Palestinians" to seek peace with Israel - and said the release of the captured "Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners is a priority." "You must admit that there is no other road to the creation of a Palestinian state but to engage resolutely in searching for a political solution and engage in a dialogue with Israel," Mr Sarkozy said in a clear message to the militant group.

Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in June 2007 before calling an election. Since then a border blockade of the territory has been put in place by Israel and Egypt. Mr Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has prepared a 53-page reconstruction plan for the donors, including detailed damage assessments.

Mr Fayyad said that with open borders and sufficient aid, reconstruction could begin in six weeks. He wants most of the aid to be funneled through his West Bank-based government. He already administers huge sums of foreign aid - $7.7 billion for 2008-2010 - and has been sending $120 million to Gaza each month for welfare and salaries of Mr Abbas' former civil servants. Other aid, such as for rebuilding homes, would go directly to the bank accounts of Gazans.

Mrs Clinton carried the pledge of about $300 million in humanitarian aid for the war-torn Gaza Strip. She also was to announce about $600 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration is casting its contributions as a calculated effort to ensure that the money does not reach Hamas, which is viewed by Washington as a terrorist organisation and not a legitimate governing body.

* AP

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