Donors from around the world gathered to offer billions of dollars for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.
Gaza aid pledges exceed US$4.4bn
SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT // Donors from around the world gathered to offer billions of dollars for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip yesterday, but the delegates raised serious concerns over whether the donations pledged could ever rebuild the bombed-out Palestinian territory. Even before delegates from almost 80 nations arrived in Egypt's Red Sea resort town yesterday, a request by the Palestinian Authority for US$2.8 billion (Dh10.3bn) appeared already within reach. A US pledge of more than $900 million, the European Union's $550m and a $1.65bn package over five years from the Gulf states helped surpass the target sum, bringing the total amount of aid committed to $4.481bn, according to Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister. Delegates focused instead on pressuring Israel to open crossings into Gaza to allow the delivery of vast quantities of cement and steel needed for rebuilding after its 22-day military bombardment of the strip. Envoys grappled with issues such as rebuilding without allowing cash, aid or building supplies to fall into the hands of Hamas, which controls the territory but is shunned by the West as a terrorist organisation. The conference, attended by neither Hamas nor Israel, echoed the positions that have dominated other meetings designed to bring an end to the 60-year-old crisis between Palestinians and Israel. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, described the closing of Gaza's borders as "intolerable" and called on Israel to permit delivery of materials needed to rebuild the 14,000 homes, 219 factories and 240 schools it had damaged or destroyed. "Construction materials and spare parts are needed to repair damaged water and sanitation systems," the secretary general said. "There is no concrete or steel to build homes or shelters." Israel has vowed to keep crossings closed unless it is satisfied that deliveries of material ranging from cement to steel rods do not supply Hamas or can be used to build rockets and launch sites for its militants. Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said: "We definitely don't want to see the goodwill of the international community exploited by Hamas and serve Hamas's extremist purposes. "The proposal from the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas, the president, is a detailed assessment of Gaza's reconstruction costs including plans to divert much of the assistance through the UN and other agencies. But the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority cannot rebuild Gaza without dealing with Hamas, which wrested control of the territory from Mr Abbas's forces in June 2007.Speaking from Gaza, a Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, warned that any attempts to "bypass the legitimate Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip is a move in the wrong direction and it deliberately undermines the reconstruction". Egypt is mediating talks between Hamas and Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement, but the prospects of rapprochement between the Palestinian factions remain uncertain."We also need Palestinian reconciliation," Mr Ban said. "Without it, we would have to think very creatively about how we can implement our recovery plans. That is why the United Nations strongly supports Palestinian reunification. "Delegates watched Hillary Clinton's Middle East debut as US secretary of state for signs that the Obama administration may adopt a tougher stance towards Israel's compliance with international demands.But Mrs Clinton's insistence that US funding "not end up in the wrong hands" and oblique references to Gaza's blocked crossings left many feeling there may be less policy change than desired. The extent to which cash pledges for Gaza's reconstruction materialise - and whether Israel allows supplies into the territory - will be contingent on future developments in the peace process, she suggested."Our response to today's crisis in Gaza cannot be separated from our broader efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace," Mrs Clinton said. "By providing humanitarian aid to Gaza we also aim to foster conditions in which a Palestinian state ? is a responsible partner, is at peace with Israel and its Arab neighbours and is accountable to its people."Mr Olmert's recent threat of "a painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising response" to continued Hamas rocket attacks indicates that peace prospects between the Palestinians and Israel remain elusive. The one-day Conference in Support of the Palestinian Economy for the Reconstruction of Gaza brought together a bevy of leaders including the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Tony Blair, envoy for the Middle East Quartet.More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the three-week Israeli offensive, which ended on Jan 18, and left large swathes of Gaza in ruins, destroying homes, schools and other infrastructure. firstname.lastname@example.org