Concern mount ahead of Ban's visit to Strip: EU rep: Aid must not go through Islamists.
By HERB KEINON
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will travel to the Gaza Strip Tuesday, amid mounting concern in Jerusalem that the massive efforts expected to reconstruct the region will lead to a de facto recognition of Hamas rule there.
While Ban, who will balance out his trip to Gaza with a visit to Sderot, is not expected to meet any Hamas leaders or representatives, Israel is bracing for a wave of criticism following his visit there and the media attention it will bring it its wake.
Ban's visit, according to Israeli officials, was coordinated with the Prime Minister's Office. One official said that over the next few weeks, many visiting leaders were expected to ask to visit Gaza. Ban will be the highest level diplomat or leader to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control of the region in 2007.
Ban is scheduled to inspect the damage in Gaza caused by Operation Cast Lead and visit UN facilities hit in the fighting.
Speaking in Kuwait, Ban said he was determined "to do all possible to ensure that immediate steps are taken to bring relief to the people of Gaza, and to embark without delay on the process of recovery, rebuilding and reconstruction."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke by phone with Ban on Monday, in preparation for his visit, and stressed that "Hamas was responsible for the situation in Gaza and is responsible for the destruction there."
Livni, according to her office, said that the efforts to improve the situation in Gaza must not be used "to strengthen or legitimize a terror organization that has proven through its actions that it endangers the future of the population it purports to lead."
Representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, are working on developing ideas that would channel the billions of dollars expected to be funneled into Gaza in a way that will neither build up Hamas nor give the organization legitimacy.
Another Israeli concern is that the massive amounts of steel and concrete that will be needed to rebuild Gaza will be rerouted to reconstructing Hamas's badly damaged rocket-producing capabilities.
Among the ideas being discussed in Israel regarding Gaza reconstruction is to demand that responsibility for reconstruction be given to the World Bank, UNRWA, or perhaps the Palestinian Authority.
"There is a real concern that all this aid could lead to a de facto recognition of Hamas, because they are still in control. We are trying to figure out ways to reconstruct Gaza without Hamas," one official said, noting that this may be impossible to do.
This dilemma, however, is also appreciated abroad, and a key EU official, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Monday in Jerusalem that while the expected humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip would flow quickly, reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure would only begin when the EU had an acceptable Palestinian partner.
While Ferrero-Waldner did not explicitly single out Hamas, she strongly hinted that it would be difficult to rebuild Gaza as long as Hamas remained opposed to peace efforts.
"For reconstruction you also need on the other side an interlocutor, so how will this be done? Is there a reconciliation process in the meantime? What will be done? All that is open," she said.
She also said that Hamas's confrontation with Israel was hindering prospects of a better life for the people of Gaza.
"We don't want to go on to reconstruct Gaza every I-don't-know-how-many years," she said. "This is not what we want. What we would like to see is a clear sustainable peace."
"We have been at the side of the Palestinian population always and we will be at their side, but at the same time it's also for the Palestinian population on both sides to say, 'We want this peace,'" she said.
"We know that many people have been killed and we felt terribly sorry. We don't want to see civilians killed, but at the same time the population has to decide if it wants to go to peace."
Ferrero-Waldner suggested a rapprochement that returns Fatah to Gaza could be key to arranging international help. "We are already in the first preparations for a conference on immediate humanitarian needs and then later on there would be, at the right moment, a conference on reconstruction, but that is more complicated," she said.
While Ferrero-Waldner was talking about a conference to reconstruct Gaza, the French continued pushing the idea of an international Middle East peace conference.
France on Monday urged the rapid convening of an international conference toward eventually creating a Palestinian state, a day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested the international conference idea during his trip with five other European leaders to Jerusalem.
"It is urgent that a dynamic of negotiations is launched... to create a Palestinian state," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said. "An international conference should be organized quickly with this in mind."
A senior Israeli diplomatic official, however, dismissed Sarkozy's idea as a non-starter. "France and Egypt have been pushing the idea of an international conference for years, but it is not going anywhere," the official said. "Why would Israel be interested in an international conference? So it could invite more pressure on itself?"
Furthermore, anticipating the possibility that Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu may win next month's elections, the official asked whether Sarkozy really though Netanyahu would agree to a new international conference.
"How would that conference strengthen bilateral Israeli-Palestinian ties," the official asked. "What would we need it for?" He said this idea was not being seriously considered in Jerusalem.
According to the official, the Annapolis process remained the only diplomatic game in town, and that movement on this track would have to wait until US involvement following Tuesday's swearing in of President-elect Barack Obama. Even then, he said, it was unlikely - considering the military operation in Gaza - that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be interested in the near future sitting down with Israel's leaders.
"It will be difficult for Abbas to go back to business as usual with Israel," he said. "There will need to be some context for renewing ties, which could be channeling aid into Gaza through the PA."
In a related development, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini arrived in the Israel Monday night and met with Livni. He is expected to meet with PA leaders in Ramallah and oversee the delivery of Italian humanitarian aid into Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing on Tuesday.
AP contributed to this report.
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