SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AFP) – International donors on Monday pledged almost 4.5 billion dollars to the Palestinians and demanded the immediate lifting of Israel’s crippling blockade on war-battered Gaza.
But the donors meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh insisted that the aid money for the Gaza Strip must bypass its Islamist rulers Hamas, which is boycotted by the West as a terrorist group.
“We have gathered today 4.481 billion dollars, in addition to previous pledges,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit said at the close of the conference aimed at helping to rebuild Gaza after Israel’s three-week war.
He said donors called for “the immediate, total and unconditional opening” of Gaza’s borders to ease a blockade that has prevented all but vital humanitarian aid reaching the impoverished enclave’s 1.4 million inhabitants.
World leaders at the conference also appealed for urgent action to breathe new life into the moribund Middle East peace process and said reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah was crucial.
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.
“The assistance we are offering is integral to our broader goals of a comprehensive peace and a two-state solution,” she said.
“The US is prepared to engage in aggressive diplomacy with all sides in pursuit of comprehensive settlement that brings peace and security to Israel and its Arab neighbours.”
The Palestinian Authority had been seeking 2.8 billion dollars from the 75 countries and donor groups gathered in Sharm six weeks after the guns fell largely silent around Gaza.
“This conference has been 100 percent successful,” Palestinian planning minister Samir Abdallah told AFP.
Abul Gheit said the amount pledged on Monday was more than expected and added to previous pledges brought the total aid to 5.2 billion dollars.
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.
However, it is still unclear how the aid will reach Gaza as Israel has linked any lifting of its blockade, and any agreement to a long-term truce with Hamas, to the release of a soldier held by Gaza militants since June 2006.
The US administration pledged 900 million dollars, which Clinton said must not end up in the “wrong hands,” while the Arab monarchies of the Gulf have pledged 1.65 billion and the EU 554 million dollars.
Abbas 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 peace talks at a time when Israel is set for a right-wing government led by hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton, who met fellow members of the Middle East Quartet to discuss the state of peace negotiations, flew into Israel later for talks with leaders there.
As well as members of the outgoing administration, she is also due to meet Netanyahu.
Asked in Egypt if she intended to put pressure on Israeli leaders to further US goals in the region, Clinton said: “We will be discussing specific policies with the new government whenever it is formed.
“It is important that Israel work with its responsible Palestinian partners including Abbas and (Palestinian prime minister Salam) Fayyad,” she added.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the opening of the crossings to Gaza, whose largely aid-dependent population has been suffering under the Israeli blockade since Hamas seized the territory in June 2007, was “indispensible.”
“The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in.”
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad had said that Gaza construction could begin within six weeks if the crossing points are open.
However, Hamas said it will not accept any “politicised” aid and has called on the international community not to get involved in “internal Palestinian divisions.”