Gaza Reconstruction Has a Political Price-Tag

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

Gaza Reconstruction Has a Political Price-Tag

by
Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO - A conference held this week in Cairo devoted to the reconstruction of the Gaza
Strip succeeded in raising more than 5 billion dollars from international donors.
But some critics say the issue is being used as a means of isolating Gaza-based
resistance faction Hamas.

"Reconstruction efforts are being exploited to further weaken Hamas and
coerce it into changing its position vis-à-vis the Zionist occupation," Essam
Al-Arian, leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest
opposition movement, told IPS.

On Monday (Mar. 2), high-level representatives from more than 70 countries
met in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh where they pledged
monies for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, still reeling after Israel's
recent assault. Along with killing over 1,400 Palestinians, the three-week
onslaught damaged thousands of homes, offices and government buildings,
and demolished much of the Hamas-run enclave's modest infrastructure.

At the conference, donor states pledged a total of more than 5 billion dollars
for both rebuilding the battered Gaza Strip and for shoring up the wider
Palestinian economy. Speaking shortly afterwards, Egyptian Foreign Minister
Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said the liberal amount - almost double earlier
Palestinian requests - was "beyond our expectations."

There is, however, a catch. Primary donors, including both the U.S. and the
EU, insist that funds be distributed through pre-existing aid programs
operated by multilateral institutions such as the UN and the World Bank.
Notably, all such programs are run in coordination with the U.S.-backed
Palestinian Authority (PA) - Hamas's bitter rival - headed by Fatah chief
Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

"The mechanism used to deploy the money is the one that represents the PA,"
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was quoted as saying in advance of the
conference.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced
Washington's pledge of 900 million dollars in economic aid to the PA, with
300 million dollars earmarked for rebuilding the Gaza Strip. But she stressed
that none of these funds were to go to Hamas, which the U.S. and the EU
describe as a "terrorist organization".

"We have worked with the PA to install safeguards that will ensure our
funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up
in the wrong hands," she declared.

"There are pre-existing mechanisms in place" to distribute aid and funds to
the Palestinians, Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki was
quoted as saying the following day in independent daily Al-Dustour. "All of
these mechanisms coordinate with the PA."

Spokesmen for Hamas - which, although it governs the Gaza Strip, was not
invited to the event - blasted what they described as the politicization of the
reconstruction process.

"We welcome all Arab or international efforts working for the good of Gaza,"
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was quoted as saying. "But we reject any
politicized investment in the reconstruction - of what was destroyed in the
first place by the (Israeli) occupation - at the expense of the Palestinian
people and their national rights.

"Bypassing the legitimate Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip is a step in
the wrong direction and aims to harm the reconstruction," Barhoum added.

Hamas and the Fatah-led PA have pursued a bitter rivalry, featuring
intermittent fighting and tit-for-tat arrest campaigns ever since Hamas
swept Palestinian legislative elections in Gaza early 2006. Mutual animosity
reached a climax in the summer of 2007 when Hamas seized control of the
Gaza Strip from the PA in a pre-emptive coup.

Hamas and Fatah are currently negotiating the terms of a proposed national
unity government via Egyptian mediation. Although talks held in Cairo Feb.
28 were described as "positive", there have been few signs of a breakthrough.

According to Al-Arian, international donors are exploiting the reconstruction
issue to bolster the PA - which favors negotiations with Israel - at the
expense of Hamas.

"The big donors are refusing to release funds to Hamas because of its
commitment to resisting the Zionist occupation," he said. "It's a continuation
of a longstanding Zionist policy, now being implemented by the so-called
international community, aimed at forcing the Palestinians to abandon
resistance.

"It amounts to little more than political extortion," Al-Arian added. "The
Palestinian people should not be punished for the choices they make in
democratic elections."

Al-Arian went on to suggest that the Hamas-led government in Gaza
enjoyed a wider public and political mandate - particularly after the recent
Israeli assault - than Abbas's PA.

"Hamas has governed Gaza for almost two years now and enjoys more
popular support than ever," he said. "Abbas's legitimacy, by contrast, is
transitory, and will come to an end as soon as new presidential elections are
held."

The task of rebuilding is expected to be further obstructed by the
longstanding embargo on the Gaza Strip.

Ever since Hamas's 2006 electoral victories, both Israel and Egypt have kept
their respective borders with the territory sealed. Despite the increasingly
desperate need for humanitarian supplies among the strip's roughly 1.4
million inhabitants - heightened by the recent onslaught - all means in or out
of the territory have remained closed for the most part.

Hopes that the borders might soon be reopened were dashed late last month,
when Israel abruptly demanded the release of an Israeli soldier - captured by
resistance factions in 2006 - before any talk of lifting the blockade.

"The situation at the border crossings is intolerable," UN Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon declared at the conference. "Essential commodities cannot get
in," he was quoted as saying, adding that the reopening of Gaza's borders
represented the "first and indispensable goal."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, too, while stressing the need to keep
reconstruction funds out of the hands of resistance groups, noted that
rebuilding Gaza would not be possible in the absence of open borders.

"The overriding problem is the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip," agreed
Al-Arian. "Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of the conference was
the acknowledgement by the international community that as long as Gaza is
under siege, reconstruction - no matter how much money is pledged - will
remain out of the question."

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