Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Gaza Reconstruction Has a Political Price-Tag

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Mar 5 2009 (IPS) - 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 programmes operated by multilateral institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. Notably, all such programmes 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 organisation”.

“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 politicisation 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 politicised 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 favours 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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