TEL AVIV // Top western and Arab diplomats will convene in Egypt today for an international conference that is expected to pledge billions of dollars in aid to rebuild the Gaza Strip from the devastation left by Israel's 22-day onslaught in the territory. The western-backed Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, will request that delegates from the 80 donor countries meeting at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh provide at least US$2.8 billion (Dh10.3bn) to help fund the reconstruction and bolster its budget. Prominent attendees include Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, and Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president.
Mrs Clinton, attending the conference as part of her first visit to the Middle East visit since taking her new post, is expected to pledge about $900 million. Saudi Arabia has already promised to provide $1bn. The one-day conference is taking place six weeks after Israel ended its attacks in Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians and damaged thousands of homes, factories, schools, the electricity generator and water utility in the territory, which is home to 1.5m inhabitants. Israel launched the military campaign in response to continual rocket fire on its southern communities by militants in Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamic group Hamas.
Human Rights Watch, a rights organisation in New York, warned on Saturday that none of the rebuilding funds would help Gaza recover unless donors called on Israel to lift its crippling economic siege on the enclave. "All the pledges of aid this conference is expected to produce will be worth next to nothing if the donors do not demand that Israel open the borders to commercial goods as well as humanitarian essentials," said Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director. "This unlawful blockade is the primary impediment to reconstruction and to the economic activity that is essential to any society."
Israel controls Gaza's airspace and all its border crossings except for Rafah, which is managed by Egypt, and has allowed in only a trickle of humanitarian supplies since the enclave was taken over by Hamas in June 2007. Gaza needs at least 500 truckloads of humanitarian aid and commercial goods to enter daily, more than four times as many as are actually allowed in by Israel, according to the United Nations. Items that have not been let in since the Israeli operation ended on Jan 18 include chickpeas, pasta, wheat flour, notebooks for students, freezer appliances, generators, water pumps and cooking gas, Human Rights Watch said.
The World Bank, in a report that will be handed out at the conference, urged Israel to allow into Gaza such materials as cement and steel, supplies Israel has claimed could be used by Hamas to build weapons and bunkers. However, the blockade is not expected to be lifted until Israel and Hamas reach a long-lasting truce that would replace the fragile unilateral ceasefires declared by both sides. Egyptian-mediated negotiations on a ceasefire have so far been unsuccessful, and the two sides have engaged in near-daily exchanges of fire since the onslaught ended.
Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister who is facing increasing criticism at home that the operation ended too soon and did not curb militant attacks, yesterday threatened a "strong and uncompromising" retaliation to Palestinian rocket fire. So far, Israel has responded by bombarding smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, which it claims are used to bring weaponry from abroad into the strip.
Another stumbling block to Gaza's rebuilding is the years-long feud between Hamas and Fatah, the secular faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank. The spat between them escalated since Hamas violently routed Fatah from Gaza and took over the region in June 2007. Hamas is shunned by Israel, the United States and the European Union and most donors would prefer to channel funds to the Palestinian Authority. However, both factions would like to lead the reconstruction and the expected billions of dollars in aid pledges have prompted them to conduct talks in Cairo on a national unity government that would oversee Gaza's rebuilding.
The Palestinian Authority, in a detailed report written in collaboration with the World Bank and other international institutions that will be handed out at the conference, urged donors not to provide funds directly to Gaza, indicating its concern that it would fall into Hamas's hands. Any financial pledges secured by the Palestinian Authority are expected to boost Fatah in its rivalry with Hamas.
In the report, the PA estimates that immediate repairs to Gaza from the onslaught would cost at least $1.33bn. It says 15,000 houses were damaged or destroyed and extensive wreckage was caused to the water and sanitation networks, energy supplies and facilities, roads and bridges and the telecommunications system. The authority is also seeking a further $1.45bn to support its budget, which, according to the World Bank, directs about half of its recurrent expenditures towards Gaza, including paying the salaries of teachers and health workers.