Newest Gaza fight: Who controls reconstruction aid?

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

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

"No money will be sent to Gaza before an agreed upon government will be formed," said Saeb Erekat, a PA negotiator, in an interview with Israel Radio's Arabic service, referring to efforts to reform the Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah.

Isolating Hamas, say some analysts, could leave an opening for Iran to send aid that would bolster its ties with Hamas and win the hearts and minds of Gazans.

United Nations Humanitarian Chief John Holmes visited the Gaza Strip on Thursday to make an assessment of humanitarian and reconstruction needs. The most immediate concerns are clean water, electricity, sanitation, and shelter.

"Reconstruction is a political hot potato. It's a huge problem," says a locally based Western diplomat. "Hamas has got an incentive to be the spoiler, because they don't want to be left out. If they are in on the reconstruction game, they're in. If they are left out, they are a highly diminished political force."

The emerging stalemate has left aid groups and Gazans stranded with no clear idea of how or when the rebuilding will start. In the meantime, many Palestinians remain homeless and cold. Many of the surviving houses now lack windows.

An umbrella group of Palestinian private businesses has started an assessment of damage to factories. The Israeli offensive destroyed 4,000 homes and partially damaged about 17,000 more, says Ali Abu Shallah, a member of the private-sector association in Gaza, reached by phone.

"We said we're willing to take money for anyone who is willing to assist us. If there are any problems to deal with this money, we will chose UNRWA to deal with this," says Mr. Shallah. "We don't want to get involved in politics."

Earlier this week, a senior European Union official hinted at opposition to working with Hamas, which has been boycotted by the EU and the US as a terrorist organization. Indeed, giving Hamas a role in the reconstruction would signal a policy shift by the incoming US administration.

Palestinian aid groups have estimated the reconstruction price tag at $1.6 billion, but foreign aid groups who are just getting access to Gaza have not yet produced a figure.

Despite the lofty rhetoric about rebuilding Gaza, donors are queasy about moving forward amid the political wrangling – especially the PA-Hamas spat, says another Western diplomat. And while there's a commitment to draw up a reconstruction plan, the diplomat adds, there's no commitment yet to put it into action. [Editor's Note: In the original version, a quote was incorrectly attributed.]

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