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(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian officials from rival factions welcomed pledges of more than $4.4 billion to rebuild the war-torn Gaza Strip that were made at the donors conference held in Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday.
"We appreciate this very much, and we hope it can be transferred into reality in an expeditious fashion so we can see the reconstruction of Gaza begin immediately," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Jerusalem Post.
Earlier on Monday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told reporters in Gaza that the group welcomed "any Arab and international effort to rebuild what the occupation destroyed," calling the reconstruction process "a humane and moral" one.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Jerusalem on Monday to consult with Israeli government officials and with Palestinian officials in the West Bank, said the United States was pledging $900 million to the international aid effort for the Gaza Strip.
She gave no breakdown of the funds, but her spokesman, Robert A. Wood, said on Sunday that it included $300m. in humanitarian aid for Gaza and about $600m. in budget and development aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank.
Clinton conducted a rapid-fire series of one-on-one meetings with Arab and other counterparts attending the conference.
Clinton also met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and she attended a meeting of the so-called Quartet of international mediators - the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - seeking to forge progress toward peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
At the Red Sea Resort, Mubarak cautioned that rebuilding Gaza following Israel's three-week offensive in January would depend on several factors, including a long-term truce and the opening of the area's border crossings.
Mubarak said the "priority is to reach a truce between Israel and the Palestinians," and added that Egypt would continue its mediation between the two, including for a more permanent Gaza truce.
"I see a momentum in peace efforts. I [anticipate] that this year will be the year of peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians," Mubarak said.
He added that Egypt was trying to get Israel to "modify its position on reaching a truce" - referring to Israel's demand that a truce be linked to the release of kidnapped soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit.
Mubarak also called on Palestinian factions to work toward reconciliation and forming a unity government to oversee the rebuilding.
Taking the stand, Sarkozy urged "responsible Palestinians" to seek peace with Israel, and said the release of Schalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners was 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," Sarkozy said, in a clear message to Hamas.
Mark Regev, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, said Israel supported the international efforts designed to aid the people of Gaza, "but, like other responsible members of the international community, believes that mechanisms have to be established to ensure that the aid reaches the people whom it is supposed to reach, and only them.
"We don't want to see American dollars, European euros or British pounds go to lend support to Hamas's extremist regime," he said.
Regarding sharp criticism of Israel at the conference for not fully opening the border crossings into the Gaza Strip, Regev said that "the crossings are open for humanitarian aid, and 200 trucks go into the Gaza Strip each day."
Regev said that further opening the crossings beyond humanitarian support "is conditional on the release of Gilad Schalit." If there is any issue that is a clear humanitarian issue, he said, "it is Schalit, who has been held hostage for three years."
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad prepared a 53-page reconstruction plan for the donors, including detailed damage assessments. For example, fixing war damage to infrastructure and homes would cost $501m. according to the plan, which says 4,036 homes were destroyed and 11,514 damaged.
Fayad warned Sunday that reconstruction could only move forward if Gaza's borders, blockaded since Hamas's bloody takeover, opened again. He said that with open borders and sufficient aid, reconstruction could begin in six weeks.
Fayad wants most of the aid to be funneled through his West Bank-based government. He already administers huge sums of foreign aid - $7.7b. for 2008-2010 - and has been sending $120m. to Gaza each month for welfare and the salaries of PA President Mahmoud Abbas's former civil servants. Other aid, such as for rebuilding homes, would go directly to the bank accounts of Gazans.
George Mitchell, the US special envoy for Middle East peace, said that while the situation was difficult between Israel and the Palestinians, he saw opportunity for progress. Mitchell stressed the need to consolidate a cease-fire in Gaza, and he forecast that once Israel created a new governing coalition, it would be in position to improve living conditions in the West Bank.
The Obama administration is casting its Gaza and PA contributions as a calculated effort to ensure that the money does not reach Hamas, which is viewed by Washington as a terrorist organization and not a legitimate governing body.
"We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands," Clinton told the conference. She did not explicitly mention Hamas, but alluded to extremist elements.
"It is time to break the cycle of rejection and resistance," she said, "to cut the strings pulled by those who exploit the suffering of innocent people."
In her address, Clinton took note of the continuing rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel.
"These attacks must stop," she said.
Clinton stressed that the Obama administration was taking a wide-angle view of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza following weeks of attacks by Israel in response to Hamas rocket fire.
"Our response to today's crisis in Gaza cannot be separated from our broader efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace," she said. "Only by acting now can we turn this crisis into an opportunity that moves us closer to our shared goals."
She added that "by providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, we also aim to foster conditions in which a Palestinian state can be fully realized, a state that is a responsible partner, is at peace with Israel and its Arab neighbors and is accountable to its people."
Before Clinton spoke, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the conference he was encouraged by the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. He singled out Obama's decision to appoint Mitchell as special Middle East peace envoy.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.