Billions needed to repair and reconstruct devastated Gaza

By staff writers
March 2, 2009

Besides hundreds of civilian deaths, Gaza lost 14,000 houses, 260 factories and 240 school buildings during the recent onslaught from the Israeli armed forces, an international aid conference has heard.

The territory's population is living under a continuing blockade. Some 80 per cent of its population exist below the poverty line, and 40 per cent are unemployed.

The Palestinian Authority says aid of around US$3 billion is urgently needed to repair, reconstruct and rebuild. But the task is mired in politics.

Egypt is this week hosting an international donors' conference to help with the process.

All sides in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people must observe their international obligations, say participants.

Among those attending the conference are UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Together with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, they make up the Middle East peace Quartet.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has brought to the conference a plan costing US$1.3 billion to rebuild Gazans' homes, hospitals, and schools. His Palestinian Authority is also seeking another US $1.5 billion for its general finances.

Secretary Clinton has brought a promise of US$900 million, the European Union US$550 million, and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council approximately US$1.65 billion.

Both Egypt and Israel, wary of weapons smuggling and an exodus of Palestinians, are keeping tight control over their borders with Gaza. This makes it difficult if not impossible to get the building materials needed for reconstruction in the territory, say aid workers.

British Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander, speaking on Sunday 1 March2009 to reporters in Gaza, said he was appalled by the scale of human suffering there.

Middle east envoy for the Quartet Tony Blair, the former UK prime minsiter, echoed this observation.

Alexander declared: "I come with a very clear message that as a British government, we want to see full and unfettered access both for aid and for aid workers here in Gaza," Alexander said. "The scale of human suffering remains far too high."

Israel says it supports the effort to rebuild Gaza, but it will not allow any of the assistance to benefit the Gaza militants who are rocketing southern Israel.

The supply problem is only one of the obstacles to rebuilding Gaza. Another is that none of the donors wants money to fall into the hands of Hamas - even though it is an elected body.

Others argue that negotiating with Hamas is vital, and hope that Senator George Mitchell, the US envoy, can play a key role in this.

Meanwhile, the United States government has officially said that it will bypass Hamas by channeling its assistance through the United Nations and other organizations.

World Bank Managing Director Jose Daboub, speaking at a press conference this weekend, suggested a partial solution to the dilemma.

"Part of my visit is also to talk to the NGOs and talk, of course, to representatives from the different institutions to make sure that once the resources arrive, they are also channeled in the best way possible," Daboub explained.

He continued: "The World Bank manages instruments and vehicles - one particular one, a trust fund that has been used in the past - through which we have allocated some $280 million in the last 12 months. That's one option that is available for the international community to channel their resources."

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