US officials are urging that more assistance reach Palestinians in Gaza ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip to the region this weekend.
Clinton left Saturday night for an eight-day trip to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Belgium, Switzerland and Turkey. While in Israel she is she is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu.
While neither Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nor Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman are on her schedule yet, State Department sources said that it was likely other meetings would be added.
On Friday, Clinton was quoted as saying that the Egyptian-brokered efforts to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah will only work if the group recognizes Israel.
AFP cited a Voice of America radio report which quoted Clinton as saying "I believe that it's important, if there is some reconciliation and a move toward a unified authority, that it's very clear that Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth by the Quartet, by the Arab summit."
"They must renounce violence, recognize Israel, and abide by previous commitments, she said of Hamas, "otherwise, I don't think it will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads to a Palestinian state."
The centerpiece of her visit will be Monday's donors' conference in Sharm e-Sheikh for aid to the Palestinians affected by the 22-day conflict with Israel this winter. The US is expected to unveil $900 million in new assistance focused on alleviating the humanitarian crisis, though State Department officials said the money would also be used for early recovery efforts and West Bank projects, while the gathering would also serve as a venue for larger issues connected to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"We have to get the assistance to where it's most needed," a State Department official said.
He stressed that aid was going and must continue to go through the Palestinian Authority, and gave qualified support for Palestinian efforts to form a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas, though he reiterated the US demand that the latter renounce violence, recognize Israel and honor previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
"I think everyone recognizes why in theory having a unified authority among the Palestinians would be a positive step toward statehood, with certain conditions," he said.
His comments echoed statements US representatives, including Middle East envoy George Mitchell, have quietly begun to make. Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Clinton and personally brief on his trip to the region this past week.
However, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday that a national unity government with Hamas must support a two-state solution, a Hamas official said it would "never agree to sit in a government that recognizes Israel."
Though the members of the Middle East Quartet are all set to attend the donors' conference, they are not planning to hold a formal meeting. And while Clinton is expected to have several sideline conversations with her counterparts, the only bilateral meeting scheduled so far is with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Clinton will continue on to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Also on Saturday, World Bank managing director Juan Jose Daboub, a former finance minister of El Salvador, made his first trip to Gaza. He is the most senior World Bank official to visit the Strip since 2005.
The bank also released a report to be used at the donor's conference detailing funding mechanisms that could be used to help civilians in Gaza, including alternatives to the Palestinian Authority. It called for the continued financing of donor projects involving water, sanitation, electricity, municipal development and the support of nongovernmental organizations.
But the World Bank said in a press release that it sent out on Saturday along with the report that reconstruction was only possible if Israel allowed building supplies into Gaza such as cement, steel, glass, equipment and cash.
"Recovery can begin quickly, provided that sufficient materials and cash are allowed into Gaza in an efficient and predictable manner," Daboub said.
Israel has put restrictions on such materials entering the Gaza Strip out of concern that they will be used to make weapons.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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