$2.8b. expected to be pledged to Gaza

EU, Egyptian, Palestinian officials: Gaza blockade, lack of PA unity gov't obstacles to reconstruction.

Beit Lahiya rubble 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Beit Lahiya rubble 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
With the international donors' conference set to convene in Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday, more than 70 countries and some 15 organizations are expected to pledge sufficient funds to reconstruct the Gaza Strip. With heavyweight donors in attendance such as the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the United States, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad is expected to receive nearly all of the approximately $2.8 billion he is requesting to rebuild Gaza and support the PA's 2009 budget. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said Sunday that donors can use existing mechanisms, such as the World Bank, the European Union and the Islamic Fund - which all will deal with the Palestinian Authority - to finance the reconstruction. New mechanisms, he said, could be presented at the conference on Monday. In addition to direct donations to the Palestinian Authority, aid could be channeled through the United Nations, NGOs and the private sector, Palestinian economists said. The European Union is donating the vast majority of its money via the Palestinian Authority, which it considers the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but will also be channeling money via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as well as local and international NGOs. But Palestinians and international diplomats say they are concerned that the pledges could be for naught unless Israel agrees to lift its 19-month blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and allow in the needed cash, supplies and materials to rebuild the coastal territory. Egyptian officials say that lack of Palestinian reconciliation would also complicate efforts to rebuild the Strip. "What is the value of all of these millions of dollars if Israel is not allowing in a single material needed for construction, like cement, glass, metal, or tubes?" said Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian MP representing the Palestinian National Initiative faction. "The Israeli siege and closure on Gaza will prevent any reconstruction unless it is removed," he said. The international community, particularly the United States and the European Union, he added, should demand that Israel lift its blockade immediately, demand guarantees from Israel "that they won't destroy what is going to be rebuilt again" and demand it pay for damage caused to civilian infrastructure. European officials also expressed concern about the blockade. "I think everyone is gravely concerned about the access of goods and materials into Gaza for reconstruction," said Roy Dickinson, head of operations of the European Commission office in Jerusalem. The commission, along with the United Nations, the US and others, is a co-sponsor of the conference. "I think everybody in Sharm e-Sheikh [Monday] will be unanimous that the opening of the crossings is key and is almost the only issue at the moment." Dickinson added that the Palestinian Authority was ready and willing to work with the international community to deliver assistance and that UN agencies that have the needed expertise were also ready on the ground. "We have almost endless money. Money is not the problem. The only question is then can this aid reach the people of Gaza?" said Dickinson. In addition, banks in Gaza were severely cash-strapped due to Israeli restrictions on money transfers from banks in Ramallah to the Gaza Strip, he added. But Israeli officials said the solution to lifting obstacles to reconstruction lies with the Palestinians. More than 90 rockets have been fired from Gaza since Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire last month, "and this is what prevents the situation from being normalized," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "And this is why there are so many concerns about what materials can go into Gaza. If not for that, the whole situation would be different. That is what is hindering a return to normality." Zaki from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry called the normal functioning of the crossings, as well as the issue of Palestinian reconciliation "issues that constitute obstacles to sound reconstruction." But Monday's conference, he said, does not intend to really tackle these issues. "Those two issues have separate tracks," he said. "We are trying to work on opening the crossings [in Egyptian-mediated talks between Hamas and Israel], and in reconciliation talks, we are trying [our] best to reconcile the Palestinians in order to allow for the Palestinian Authority to go back to the Gaza Strip," which would facilitate the opening of the crossings. Palestinian reconciliation talks launched in Cairo last week, if successful, could also change the way aid is channeled into the Gaza Strip, said Khaled Abdel Shafi, an economist who heads the United Nations Development Program office in Gaza. "If there is a national unity government or a technocrat government that is agreed upon by different political factions, then this government will play a role" in implementing reconstruction projects directly, "and then [donors] may not opt to use the UN or NGOs," he said. Meanwhile, Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday morning for the first time since Operation Cast Lead to discuss reconstruction efforts in the territory. "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," Blair said at a UN-run school in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun. "These are the people who need to be the focus of all our efforts for peace and progress from now on." Blair went on to say that he would pass on "their account of events, their assessment of what is needed for reconstruction, their goals for rebuilding a vibrant sector" to Monday's conference. It was also Blair's first visit to Gaza since he was appointed to represent the Middle East peacemaking Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations in 2007. He also visited Sderot on Sunday, stressing that Hamas needed to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. "Thousands of rockets have fallen on Sderot in the past few years, and no civilian population should have to live with this kind of worry," Blair said. AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.