(photo credit: AP)
Syria's announcement that it will participate in next week's international donors conference on rebuilding the Gaza Strip was welcomed in the Arab world on Thursday, being hailed by some as an additional sign of inter-Arab reconciliation.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem announced on Wednesday that he would represent his country at the Sharm e-Sheikh conference, where more than 70 countries are expected on Monday to pledge more than $2 billion in funds to the reconstruction effort. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to attend.
"Syria would not be absent from any conference hosted on the issue of rebuilding Gaza," Moallem said at a joint press conference in Damascus with EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called Syria's intended presence at the conference a positive sign that bode well for the Palestinian people, who are currently engaged in reconciliation talks in Egypt.
"Syria's coming is a good sign that we have no differences on the agenda of the reconstruction, which is linked to reconciliation talks in Cairo," Erekat told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Qatar, which has sided with Hamas, also plans to attend Monday's conference, an Egyptian official confirmed. Iran will not be there.
Divisions in the Arab world were brought to the fore during Israel's devastating three-week military operation against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. One camp, headed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, sided with Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, while Qatar, along with Syria, sided with Hamas and accused Egypt of not doing enough to help Palestinians in Gaza.
Hamas was not invited to the conference.
"We hope that there will be some ice-breaking between Syria and Saudi Arabia, and Syria and Egypt," Erekat said. "[The Palestinians] will be the most to benefit from the ice-breaking. Once the Arabs sort out their problems, this will reflect positively on us."
When asked whether Syria's presence in Sharm e-Sheikh could improve Cairo-Damascus relations, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki was non-committal. "Maybe," he said on Thursday. "We'll see."
According to Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Cairo-based al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, attendance by Syria and Qatar appears to be a positive sign that divisions during the Gaza crisis were healing, adding it was "a kind of admission by Qatar and Syria that the Gaza file is now in Egyptian hands."
Since the January economic summit in Kuwait, at which Saudi King Abdullah called for inter-Arab reconciliation, communication has increased between Syria and Saudi Arabia, and Syria and Egypt, Said Aly said.
Saudi-Syrian relations took a turn for the worse in 2005 following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was also a Saudi citizen.
The Syrian foreign minister visited Riyadh on Tuesday, delivering a personal message to King Abdullah from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"There is a lot of understanding between Damascus, Riyadh and Cairo to really close the file of the last crisis, when Syria was in another camp," Said Aly said, adding that Hamas would not be conducting reconciliation talks with the rival Fatah if Syria did not approve.
Syria could also be attending the conference to signal a positive stance in the region to the United States "and that any kind of [obstinacy] or lack of favorability toward the peace process will be coming from the new Israeli government" rather than Syria, he said.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is asking donor countries to channel hundreds of millions of dollars in expected aid for Gaza "first and foremost" through his government.
Fayyad's request is part of a 53-page report he presented to donors ahead of the Sharm e-Sheikh conference. The report was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
The Palestinians will be represented at the conference by Fayyad, a US-backed moderate and Hamas rival. The document says that of nearly $2.8 billion in requested aid, about half would be for reconstruction and the other half for budgetary support.
Donors have not yet decided who should lead the reconstruction.
According to a report issued Thursday by the International Monetary Fund, some $1.1b. will be needed over a two year period to repair the damage from Operation Cast Lead. Its chief of mission to the Palestinian territories, Oussama Kanaan, said that $600 million should be earmarked for the first year, and $500m. for the second.
The report also says the PA will need $1.15b. for budgetary expenses in 2009, as well as $500m. for development projects.
It painted a bleak picture of life in the Palestinian territories, where 80 percent of all Gaza households were living below the poverty line and the unemployment rate was 40%. In the West Bank, 45% of all households were below the poverty line and the unemployment rate was 19%.
Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to this report.