(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu voiced serious reservations during recent meetings with foreign leaders about money going into the Gaza Strip for reconstruction before the rocket fire on Israel has stopped, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
After hearing in one meeting that European taxpayers were concerned about investing in Gaza only to see further destruction at the hands of the IDF, Netanyahu explained that Israel tried hard to avoid civilian casualties and targeted only those areas used by terrorists. He then reportedly said he was not willing to sacrifice Israel's security "for a smile."
Sources close to Netanyahu said it would be critical for humanitarian aid to bypass Hamas, especially with the Islamist group continuing to fire rockets into Israel.
One Netanyahu aide said that with the Gaza reconstruction conference, it seemed as if the world felt that attacks on Israel were a thing of the past, when they were taking place daily.
Representatives of some 80 countries - including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - are gathering in Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday to pledge billions of dollars to rebuild the damage from Operation Cast Lead, with the US reportedly ready to invest $900 million in the enterprise.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that "should the firing from the Gaza Strip continue, it would be met by a painful, sharp, strong and uncompromising response by the security forces, led by the IDF."
Olmert said Israel could not countenance the continued attacks, and that the response would not be what the terrorist organizations expected.
Later in the day, Olmert met with Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who was on his way to the donor meeting. The prime minister told him that Israel supported aid for the Palestinians in Gaza but that ways had to be found to ensure that the support did not strengthen Hamas.
The important thing was not just to pledge money, Olmert said of the expected $2.8 billion in pledges, including $1b. from Saudi Arabia. The important thing was to see how the aid was to be delivered, and what monitoring mechanism would be set up so the money didn't end up helping Hamas.
Like Netanyahu, Olmert said it would be a mistake to believe that the matter of rockets from Gaza was over. The assumption that there was now quiet in the South and that all efforts could be focused on reconstruction was faulty, he said.
In the run-up to the conference, Quartet envoy Tony Blair became the latest in a parade of international figures making their way to the Gaza Strip, going there Sunday for the first time since taking up his post in the summer of 2007.
"This money will not have a lasting impact unless there is a political solution," Blair said. "It is ultimately in the politics that the solution lies."
At a UN-run school in Beit Hanun, Blair said, "I wanted to come to hear for myself first-hand from people in Gaza, whose lives have been so badly impacted by the recent conflict. These are the people who need to be the focus of all our efforts for peace and progress from now on."
Britain's International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander also visited Gaza, and pledged Â£30m. to rebuild homes, schools and hospitals damaged or destroyed in the recent IDF offensive.
During his visit, Alexander urged Israel to relax restrictions on items allowed into the area.
"There is a desperate need for tough restrictions on the supply of goods to be relaxed," he said. "Gaza needs money, fuel and construction materials, and whilst these goods are turned away at the borders, repairs to homes, water systems and the electricity network will remain impossible. Israel must do the right thing and allow much-needed goods to get through to those men, women and children who continue to suffer."
In a statement released by the British Embassy, Alexander did not relate to Israeli concerns that it could not allow construction materials such as steel and concrete into the region for fear they would be used to build rockets and rocket factories.
Clinton, on her first trip to the region since being appointed secretary of state, is scheduled to arrive in Israel Monday evening, immediately following the donor conference and a meeting with other representatives of the Quartet - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
On Tuesday, she is scheduled to meet with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
She is also scheduled to visit Yad Vashem, hold a joint press conference with Livni, and attend an event at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
On Wednesday she is scheduled to go to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. She is scheduled to leave Wednesday afternoon.
AP contributed to this report.