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Newest Gaza fight: Who controls reconstruction aid?

Israel and the US don't want rebuilding homes to become rebuilding Hamas.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2009

A Palestinian looked up while repairing a smuggling tunnel Thursday in Rafah, near Gaza's border with Egypt. Many such tunnels were destroyed by Israeli bombs in the past few weeks.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters


Tel Aviv

As the tentative Israel-Hamas cease-fire holds, attention is now shifting to the task of rebuilding the homes, public buildings, factories, and roads destroyed in the three-week onslaught.

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But the reconstruction plans remain on hold while a geopolitical scrum plays out between Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the international community over who will control a multibillion dollar aid package. Whoever comes out on top is likely to emerge as the long-term winner from the Gaza war.

"The reconstruction issue is becoming a bargaining issue for everybody," says Ghassan Khatib, a former member of the Palestinian Authority cabinet reached by phone in the West Bank. "It symbolizes the results of the war."

Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in aid, and Gulf states are expected to match the contribution with an identical sum. But how that assistance will be distributed is unclear because Israel, Western nations, and their Arab allies – especially President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority – want to avoid strengthening Hamas.

Israeli officials say that they will insist that aid be scrupulously accounted for and that recipients aren't linked to the Islamic militants. Because it controls the crossings that regulate the flow of commercial goods and cash – both are in short supply in Gaza – the Jewish state can still exert considerable pressure on Gaza's economy. That has spurred concern among aid groups that Israel will disrupt the flow disrupt the flow of building materials to fix up gaza.

"We want to make sure that the rehabilitation of Gaza doesn't turn into the rehabilitation of Hamas," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The reconstruction may also become tangled up in Israel's effort to press Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted in 2006 and believed to be in Gaza ever since. Earlier this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that progress on Corporal Shalit's release would be a precondition to opening up the border crossings that have been mostly closed since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in 2007.

At a press conference on Thursday, PA officials said they would be taking the lead in drawing up plans for Gaza's reconstruction. The rebuilding effort could be used by the US and its European allies as leverage to bring the PA back into power in Gaza.