Iran General NewsRebuilding Gaza pits Hamas against Abbas as Iran, U.S....

Rebuilding Gaza pits Hamas against Abbas as Iran, U.S. clash

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ImageBloomberg: At a Feb. 1 ceremony amid the rubble of a bombed-out mosque in the Gaza Strip, Hamas activists handed out cash payments of 4,000 euros ($5,100) to hundreds of Palestinians whose homes were destroyed during the 22-day war with Israel.

By David Rosenberg and Saud Abu Ramadan

ImageMarch 2 (Bloomberg) — At a Feb. 1 ceremony amid the rubble of a bombed-out mosque in the Gaza Strip, Hamas activists handed out cash payments of 4,000 euros ($5,100) to hundreds of Palestinians whose homes were destroyed during the 22-day war with Israel.

Now, a new battle is emerging over who will rebuild the roads, buildings and water lines wrecked during Israel’s offensive: Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that rules Gaza and is backed by Iran, or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah group, which controls the West Bank and is favored by the U.S., Israel and pro-U.S. Arab countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“The wider picture is who will set the tone in the Middle East: whether it’s going to be Iran and its allies or the U.S. and its allies,” said Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.

Egypt is hosting an international donors conference today in Sharm el-Sheikh, which the U.S. said it backs as a show of “support” for Abbas’s reconstruction efforts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived yesterday for the meeting. Hamas isn’t invited.

At a Feb. 25 news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who heads the Fatah-backed Cabinet, said he will ask for $2.8 billion to rebuild Gaza.

Seeking $2.5 Billion

Mohammed Awad, the planning minister for the Hamas-led government in Gaza, said the same day that he seeks $2.5 billion. “We reject the idea of sending the donations to redevelop Gaza to the Palestinian Authority,” Mussa Abu Marzuk, deputy chief of Hamas’s politburo, said Jan. 19, the day after the war with Israel ended.

Hamas and Fatah both want to reap the political benefits of guiding the reconstruction in time for the next scheduled Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2010. They ruled together in a national unity coalition until Hamas seized full control of Gaza in 2007. While each side now claims to be the legitimate Palestinian government, their representatives began meeting in Cairo last week to discuss forging a new coalition.

Abbas favors pressing forward on peace talks with Israel, which have been on hold since November. Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, refuses to recognize Israel.

“The Palestinians are very much divided right now,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al- Azhar University. “Part support Fatah and part support Hamas. Whoever is going to be responsible for the reconstruction will get the credit.”

No Monopoly

In the end, it’s likely that neither will be able to claim a monopoly over the rebuilding efforts, said Mohammad Yaghi, a Palestinian scholar affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While Hamas rules Gaza and has its own financial resources, Israel controls the territory’s borders. Fatah has wider international backing, and its security forces have been upgraded with U.S. aid, although Abbas’s support among the Palestinian public is “very weak,” Yaghi said.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza, a 360 square-kilometer (144 square-mile) enclave on the Mediterranean Sea, complicates the situation. While Israel allows humanitarian aid, it bans goods critical for redevelopment, including concrete and pipes it says Hamas uses for military purposes such as building underground installations and rockets aimed at its southern towns.

Network of Tunnels

To evade the blockade, Palestinians dug tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt to bring in everything from fuel to cash. Israel said Hamas also uses the subterranean network to smuggle weapons. It began the war with the declared aim of ending the missile attacks; the tunnels were one of its targets. More than 1,300 Palestinians died during the fighting, according to Palestinian medical officials. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

Israel has conditioned the opening of the border crossings into Gaza on the release of a soldier Hamas militants have held since they captured him in June 2006.

Hamas’s aim in guiding the reconstruction is to repeat the success of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement after its 2006 war with Israel. Hezbollah, also considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., used cash payments made with Iranian funding to rebuild shattered homes and boost its political power, said Jonathan Halevy, a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said on Aug. 14, 2007, that the group disbursed $380 million in aid.

Death, Damage

While the war — which started after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers — left 1,200 Lebanese dead and caused $3.5 billion in damage, the movement retained its armed force and political power. It now controls more than a third of the 30 seats in Lebanon’s ruling Cabinet and has veto power over major government decisions.

Iran has set up a Gaza Reconstruction Headquarters in Tehran that will build 1,000 homes, 10 schools, five mosques and 500 shops, Iran’s Press TV said Jan. 21 on its Web site. Qatar, which backs Hamas, has offered $250 million, while Hamas has pledged $40 million of its own money.

The U.S. will provide $300 million for humanitarian needs in Gaza, State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters yesterday in Sharm el-Sheikh. None of the funds will go to Hamas, he said.

The EU will pledge 436 million euros at today’s conference, the European Commission said in a Feb. 27 statement. Kuwait promised $34 million to the United Nations Relief Works Agency in Gaza. Saudi Arabia committed $1 billion at a Jan. 20 Arab League conference; it hasn’t said how it will channel its contribution.

‘Proven Capacity’

The World Bank yesterday urged donor countries to send reconstruction funds through the Palestinian Authority and five local organizations with “proven capacity” to undertake such projects. It didn’t mention Hamas.

Some funds are coming from less-than-official sources. On Feb. 5, Egyptian officials detained Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas official, as he tried to cross the border into Gaza with $9 million and 2 million euros in cash. Taha said the money was “donations to the Palestinian people” without specifying where it came from.

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