SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AFP) – International donors meeting in Egypt on Monday are expected to pledge billions of dollars in aid to help rebuild the war-battered Gaza Strip and revitalise the Palestinian economy.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first visit to the region as America’s top diplomat, said the economic aid must go hand-in-hand with efforts to reach a comprehensive peace deal with Israel.
“Our response to today’s crisis in Gaza cannot be separated from our broader efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace,” Clinton told the conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
Donors insist the money must be channelled through the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas and must not go to Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, boycotted as a terrorist group by Israel and the West.
The Palestinian Authority is seeking 2.8 billion dollars from the 70-odd donors meeting in Sharm six weeks after the guns fell largely silent around the besieged Gaza Strip.
More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the three-week Israeli offensive which also left large swathes of Gaza in ruins, destroying homes, schools and other infrastructure.
The US adminstration has pledged 900 million dollars to the Palestinians, which Clinton said must not end up in the “wrong hands.”
Abbas too said any economic aid was “insufficient” without a political settlement to the decades-old Middle East conflict, with the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
He called on the international community to take urgent steps to help revive the peace talks at a time when Israel is set for a right-wing government led by hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton is due to meet fellow members of the Middle East peace Quartet on Monday to try to advance the peace negotiations which have been on ice since the Gaza war.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for the easing of Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas violently seized the territory in June 2007 after days of fierce fighting with forces loyal to Abbas.
“The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in,” Ban said. “Our first and indispensable goal is to open crossings.”
Neither Israel nor Hamas — which have so far failed to reach a long-term Gaza truce being mediated by Egypt — were represented in Sharm.
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad told reporters he was confident the aid demands would be met but said a reopening of the border crossings was essential.
“If the donors provide the necessary funds and if the crossing points are open we will be able to begin reconstruction within six weeks at the latest.”
The Palestinian Authority is seeking 1.3 billion dollars in 2009-2010 for the reconstruction of Gaza and reviving the economy as well as 1.5 billion dollars to shore up its budget.
“The aim of this plan is not only to restore the situation in Gaza to what it was before the Israeli aggression but to improve it noticeably by linking it to economic development,” Fayyad said on Sunday.
Israel is demanding that the international community ensures the aid does not reach Hamas, a group sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, and has linked any lifting of its blockade to the release of a soldier held by Gaza militants since June 2006.
But Hamas said it would not accept any “politicised” aid, with spokesman Fawzi Barhum calling for a “rapid, urgent, and serious operation to bring aid to Gaza without getting involved in internal Palestinian divisions.”
Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah which forms the backbone of the Palestinian Authority have long been rivals but agreed at talks in Egypt last week to work towards the formation of a national unity government.
The European Union said it will donate 554 million dollars while the six members of the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council have pledged 1.65 billion dollars.
Donor countries from the January 2008 Paris conference will reiterate a pledge of 7.4 billion dollars in aid over 2008-2010, of which three billion has already been distributed.
The IMF has estimated the Palestinain Authority needs 2.25 billion dollars for 2009, including 600 million dollars to rehabilitate Gaza.