At Gaza donor conference, Clinton vows to pursue Middle East peace

The US pledged $900 million, but said the money would not go to Hamas.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (l.) and US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell (2nd l.), met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (r.) on Monday. At a donor's conference on Monday, Ms. Clinton pledged about $300 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza Strip recovery efforts.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered $900 million for Gazans and made a commitment to move toward a Palestinian state at a meeting of donor nations Monday in Egypt.

"By providing humanitarian aid to Gaza we also aim to foster conditions in which a Palestinian state can be fully realized, a state that is a responsible partner, is at peace with Israel and its Arab neighbors and is accountable to its people," said Mrs. Clinton at the one-day summit in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.

The meeting was to raise money for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, which was devastated by January's 22-day conflict between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas.

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The Palestinian Authority had hoped to raise $2.78 billion, but that sum had been surpassed by pledges made before the summit by the United States, Britain, the European Union, and the six member states of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

But as foreign ministers took out their checkbooks, the prospect of rebuilding Gaza was complicated by ongoing negotiations in Cairo over the political framework of reconstruction.

Since January, Egypt has mediated talks between Israel and Hamas over a formal truce. In exchange for an end to Hamas rocket fire into Israel, as well as the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel says it will fully open Gaza's borders. Egypt is expected to follow suit.

Last week, Hamas and Fatah announced the beginning of talks to form a unity government by the end of March. It is the first such talks between the two sides since the collapse of the last Palestinian unity government in the spring of 2007.

Donors have made it clear that the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority will be the sole beneficiary of funds raised at Monday's meeting, even though it has not had a presence in Gaza since Hamas expelled it in June 2007.

They say none of the money pledged in Sharm el-Sheik will go to Hamas.

"Hamas is not getting any of this money," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters at the resort, where Clinton arrived for her first foreign visit to the Middle East.

"We have to shore up the Palestinian Authority," he said.

The United States has pledged $900 million to the Palestinian Authority (PA), but only $300 million of that will be devoted to providing humanitarian relief to Gaza. None of those funds are expected to go toward construction projects.

Mr. Wood told reporters that $200 million of that sum would go to covering PA budget shortfalls, and the rest would go to supporting PA-led private sector projects and funding security forces.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-member trade bloc made up of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, pledged the largest single amount, with a five-year commitment to provide $1.65 billion in aid to the beleaguered Palestinian coastal enclave.

"There is a broad consensus on the need to have the PA involved," says Jan Dybfest, a senior adviser to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and a special envoy to the conference, which was co-organized by Norway. "The mechanisms that already exist for channeling money through the PA can still be used when it comes to Gaza."

He says the funds will be directed to the PA through a World Bank trust fund, as well as through a "Flash Appeal" announced by the United Nations in February to raise $613 million.

UN funds will be earmarked for repairing public utilities such as healthcare, schools, and water as well as damaged infrastructure and the removal of rubble, says Mr. Dybfest.

"There will be a focus on immediate needs," he says. "This is work that needs to happen for people's daily lives to continue."

During the conference, Clinton met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. She also attended a meeting of the so-called Quartet of international mediators — the US, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia — seeking to forge peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

"We have worked with the Palestinian Authority 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," Clinton told the conference. She did not explicitly mention Hamas but alluded to extremist elements.

"It is time to break the cycle of rejection and resistance," she said, "to cut the strings pulled by those who exploit the suffering of innocent people."

But aid workers and observers are uneasy about the conference, and alarmed about US statements explicitly tying the aid to political goals.

They say that rather than shoring up one faction over another, the conference should focus on the logistics of aid and rebuilding.

Without a deal on a truce or national unity government, and with the borders still mostly closed, it remains to be seen how useful any of these promises will be.

"The issue is that aid has been politicized," says Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says aid and reconstruction have to start immediately, and cannot wait for the political horse-trading in Cairo to come to an end.

"The people of Gaza can't wait for a political solution," he says. "They need aid desperately right now, and to get it Israel needs to open the borders.'

Robert Blecher, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the most important thing that donor countries can do is to commit to working with a Palestinian unity government when it is announced next month – whatever it looks like.

He says that the refusal of major donor countries to work with a national unity government formed in 2007, due to concerns about the role played by Hamas, "contributed to its failure."

"They should take this opportunity to signal they will be more flexible by judging the new government on the basis of its behavior, not by an ideological litmus test," he says. " Money is important, but all the money in the world won't matter if it goes to Ramallah and Ramallah cannot work in Gaza."

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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