An international conference, underway today in Sharm el-Sheikh to raise money for reconstruction in Gaza—including nearly a billion dollars from the United States—highlights an underlying regional battle between pro- and anti-Iran factions over who will rebuild and control the Gaza Strip.
“Iranians want to control the future of Gaza by being the donors, and the Egyptians have a built-in interest in reversing this option and putting the capabilities in the hands of people who will not necessarily sustain Hamas’ power,” said former Israeli intelligence officer Eran Lerman. “The control of reconstruction is just beginning.”
Israel and Egypt have a mutual interest in suppressing a resurgence of Hamas, since it is bankrolled by Iran. Israel, the United States and Europe recognize Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction as the legitimate powerbroker for the Palestinians, and have attempted to isolate the Iranian-backed Hamas.
Hamas reportedly handed out $5,000-checks to Palestinians directly after the three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza earlier this year, sealing the militant group’s popularity among Palestinians and other Arab nations.
As rockets launched from the Gaza Strip continued to hit southern Israeli cities despite a cease-fire, international leaders of some 80 nations convened the donors’ conference in Egypt. It is expected to raise up to $4 billion - including $900 million from the United States - in reconstruction and humanitarian aid for the war-torn Palestinian territory and to shore up the Palestinian Authority.
But Israelis and rival Palestinians expressed caution and skepticism of such a magnanimous aid package to a region under the elected control of a terrorist organization without first implementing a framework to dispense money and equipment so that it bypasses Hamas.
“Theoretically it is doable, but practically it will be very difficult,” Lerman said. “Construction work can go ahead under the control of players and companies who come in (to Gaza). Clearly, if not, cement will be used for fortifications and iron will fly back into Israel in the form of missiles.”
Unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has an open border with Syria providing a conduit for weapons from Iran to the Shiite terror organization, Lerman said that “Hamas is under close scrutiny of Israel and Egypt and both countries have no interest in empowering Hamas.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told conference participants Monday that safeguards are in place “that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands.” She didn’t give specifics.
Clinton spokesman Robert A. Wood said the $900 million the U.S. pledged included $300 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza and about $600 million in budget and development aid to the Palestinian Authority. The package must be approved by Congress.
Clinton also called for reviving an Arab initiative from 2002 calling for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders for the creation of a Palestinian state there and in Gaza, in return for peace accords with the Arab world. Israel has refused to endorse the plan as it would give up large chunks of land where Israelis now live and major parts of Jewish Jerusalem.
Aid should go to those who recognize Israel and want peace and should not be a reward to the Iran-backed terrorists in Gaza, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi, president of The Israel Project.
“It is critical that U.S. tax dollars as a part of this package are transparent and do not go towards hate-filled textbooks for Palestinian children or for UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) to continue to be used as if they were the spokespeople of Hamas,” she said..
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Hamas should not treat the pledges as a “conquest of war,” but that is exactly what the organization has done so far, according to Elias Zananiri, a Palestinian journalist and former adviser the late Yasser Arafat.
“Hamas is promoting its political agenda at the expense of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” he said. “Hamas wants to manipulate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in order to be considered the sole authority in Gaza to distribute the money to the people.”
Zananiri, who blames both Israel and Hamas for the crisis in Gaza, said any donations to Gaza would be “useless” without assurances that Hamas will not wrest the aid for its own distribution and that Israel will not bomb the area again, relegating reconstruction obsolete.
“What kind of mechanism does anyone have in Gaza to make sure the money is invested in the right way? Right now only mechanism is Hamas,” he said.
Another Arab columnist warned that supplies and money must not get into Hamas’ hands like it did in Lebanon in 2006 when Hezbollah took credit by “seizing control of the postwar reconstruction process.”
Ziad Asali of the American Task Force on Palestine, in Feb. 27’s Daily Star of Lebanon on Feb. 27, wrote that aid should be filtered through the UN and international NGOs but that “If Hamas again attempts to interfere, it risks the suspension of aid.”
According to Israeli media, sources close to Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s prime minister-designate has reservations about reconstruction aid to Gaza while rocket attacks continued. But outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Sunday’s cabinet meeting said Israel supports international assistance to the Gaza Strip, despite 11 rockets fired at Israel over the weekend.
Yossi Cohen, spokesman for the municipality of Sderot, said residents of the battered southern city had no problem with the U.S. giving money to the Palestinians, but at the same time Israel’s key ally should also understand Israelis’ plight during the past nine years of Palestinian rockets.
“America is giving the Palestinians a chance to improve the sitution in the Strip,” he said. “But if they want to help the Palestinians, help us too.”
U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon , in his speech to the donor conference, connected a “durable cease-fire” with an Israeli commitment to open the border crossings. Israel does not allow cement or steel through the crossings.
“The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in,” Ban told the gathering at the Red Sea resort.
Both Hamas and Israel were not invited to the conference. Hamas insists that rebuilding Gaza is impossible without the organization’s help.
“To bypass the legitimate Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip is a move in the wrong direction and it deliberately undermines the reconstruction,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
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