Hamas rule could hinder efforts to rebuild Gaza

The war in Gaza may have ended but the territory remains under Hamas rule and strict Israeli sanctions, which could hinder international efforts to rebuild the devastated coastal enclave.

When Israel announced a unilateral halt to its Gaza offensive Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups embarked on their own week-long truce while demanding the reopening of the territory’s border crossings by next Sunday.

But Israel — which has sealed Gaza off from all but humanitarian aid since the Islamist group seized power in June 2007 — may be loathe to fully reopen Gaza as long as it is ruled by Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Tuesday that Israel will only cooperate with reconstruction efforts if they are led by international organisations, Egypt, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

”Hamas bears full responsibility for the devastation in the Gaza Strip and for attacks on innocents,” he said.

”Hamas cannot, therefore, be allowed to lead the reconstruction process in the Strip and thereby gain some measure of legitimacy.”

It is not yet clear whether the United States and the European Union — which blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organisation — can carry out reconstruction projects in a territory ruled by a Hamas-appointed government.

”For a reconstruction you also need on the other side an interlocutor,” European Union Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters in Jerusalem this week.

”So how will this be done? Is there a reconciliation process in the meantime? What will be done? All that is open.”

While Israel has allowed hundreds of shipments of food and medicine into Gaza, it may not be as willing to permit much-needed building materials such as concrete and metal pipes, which are also used to make homemade rockets.

Construction materials have not been allowed into the territory in 18 months.

”When it comes to dual-use materials, I think the Israeli government might be reluctant to allow them in, unless we are sure that they are for construction,” says Ephraim Kam, an Israeli security expert.

If the ceasefire holds Israel will likely reopen the crossings, but it may want to be more ”selective” about what it allows in, Kam says.

The war has caused damage estimated at $1,9-billion to Gaza’s already beleaguered economy and infrastructure, according to the Palestinian central bureau of statistics.

Its figures show that since the start of Israel’s offensive on December 27, about 4 100 dwelling places have been destroyed as well as 48 government offices and buildings, 31 police stations and 20 mosques.

The extensive list also catalogues damage to roads, schools, the electricity grid and the water network, with about 14 percent of all the buildings in the battered territory having been either damaged or destroyed.

Arab nations failed to come up with a clear commitment to help reconstruction when they met in Kuwait this week.

Their leaders pledged ”all forms of support for the reconstruction of Gaza” but did not agree a specific fund. Saudi Arabia pledged a billion dollars in aid.

And it is so far unclear what role, if any, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas will have in Gaza, where his forces were ousted by the violent Hamas takeover in 2007.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was appointed by Abbas after the powergrab, has said his government must lead rebuilding efforts.

Fayyad pointed out that the Palestinian Authority was providing $120-million dollars a month to civil servants in the Gaza Strip and is already leading efforts to provide humanitarian aid, along with the United Nations.

But Abbas has no power in Gaza, and his proposal for the formation of a transitional national unity government to spearhead reconstruction efforts and hold new elections has long been rejected by Hamas.

Fayyad said this week he fears that bypassing the Palestinian Authority could lend new legitimacy to the separation of the Palestinian territories and fatally wound the decades-old struggle for a Palestinian state.

”We may end up being a party in reinforcing not only the separation, but actually … putting the Palestinian cause on the path of assured liquidation.” — Sapa-AFP

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