Israel not interested in EU aid for North [pg. 2]

The European Union would be open to providing Israel with funds to rebuild the North should it be called on to do so but has received no such request, EU humanitarian chief Louis Michel said Thursday. Israel responded that it has no interest in EU funds and wants reconstruction efforts focused on Lebanon, so that task doesn't fall only to Iran and Syria. Michel visited northern Israel earlier in the day and saw the damage inflicted by Hizbullah's Katyushas and heard from citizens about the economic loss they endured during more than a month of fighting. The day before he was in Lebanon, surveying the devastation to infrastructure and the economy there. "I was of course very sad and disappointed that the people of Haifa had to suffer the rockets of the Hizbullah, but I was also very, very disappointed and very, very upset and angry and anxious concerning the way in which the strikes and bombs had destroyed buildings in Lebanon," Michel, the EU commissioner responsible for development and humanitarian aid and the former foreign minister of Belgium, said. The EU has already pledged €20 million in aid and Michel said he was recommending that another €30m. be allocated, which would push EU Commission and member state contributions to €100m.. According to the UN, some $2 billion in damage was caused just to Lebanese infrastructure such as transportation, housing and telecommunications. Israel suffered much less physical damage, but still incurred an estimated NIS 4 to 5 billion in direct and indirect damage and compensation to victims of the Katyushas. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev said Israel didn't want reconstruction funds from the EU, because the country wants all international money to be focused on Lebanon "to counteract the influence of Syria and Iran." He explained, "We don't want to have the Iranians and Syrians rebuilding southern Lebanon." Regev also said he was not aware of any Israeli requests for US funds, and a US embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv said he also had not heard any discussion of America giving Israel humanitarian aid at this point. Regev did note, though, that Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres is currently in the US with the United Jewish Communities to raise money from American Jewry for northern Israel. That aid, he said, would not take away from what Lebanon could reap. "That's our money. That's not going to go to Lebanon," Regev said. One Western diplomatic source, however, attributed Israel's lack of interest in EU funds to politics. "Israel doesn't want to do the EU's bidding," he said. "It really boils down to the fact that Israel is an American rather than a European client state." Regev dismissed such assertions as "not serious" and reiterated Israel's desire to see EU money go to Lebanon. Already Hizbullah has been stepping in to provide funding to returning refugees. Hundreds of Lebanese signed up Wednesday for aid from Hizbullah, which is offering rent money, reconstruction money and even funds for new furniture. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah did not say where the money for this effort would come from, but terror groups' Iranian backers are widely believed to have opened their treasury for the rebuilding program. Michel stressed the need for the international community step in quickly so as not to grant Hizbullah a "monopoly" on aid distribution. "If the government of Lebanon isn't able to deliver ... basic normal services," he said, "the other actors will deliver, and I'm not sure that this is a good thing," he said. "The international community has to give all the possible support to the Lebanese government in order to give them credit and authority over the whole country and whole territory." He urged Israel to lift its blockade of the area to allow essential supplies, particularly food, to those in need. He added, however, that after his visit to the IDF's coordination center for humanitarian aid, "I have to confess that the explanations we received were rather convincing. Of course, we know that in the context of war and violence it's always difficult to coordinate humanitarian aid [but] it's working rather efficiently, even if of course we cannot have 100 percent efficiency." He also praised Defense Minister Amir Peretz for his "openness and the willingness he showed to help us and help the humanitarian workers." Following their meeting, he said, "He was really willing to help, and he was fully concerned by the humanitarian aspects of the problem." The Associated Press contributed to this report.