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Palestinians seek $2.8 billion to rebuild Gaza

The rival Palestinian governments — U.S.-backed moderates in the West Bank and the Islamic militants of Hamas in Gaza — presented competing plans Wednesday for rebuilding war-ravaged Gaza.
Image: Gaza
Palestinian children play on Feb. 4 amid the rubble of houses that were destroyed during Israel’s 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The rival Palestinian governments — U.S.-backed moderates in the West Bank and the Islamic militants of Hamas in Gaza — presented competing plans Wednesday for rebuilding war-ravaged Gaza, each seeking roughly $2.8 billion in foreign aid.

The moderates, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, believe they can raise the full amount at an international pledging conference for Gaza in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik next week. Saudi Arabia has already promised $1 billion and the U.S. is expected to contribute about $900 million.

However, Gaza would need open borders and an internationally accepted government for reconstruction to move forward smoothly. At the moment, it has neither.

Hamas is widely shunned as a terror group, and Israel and Egypt have kept Gaza cut off from the world since the militants seized the territory in June 2007, leaving Abbas only in control of the West Bank.

In one scenario, Hamas and Abbas would reconcile, form a joint government and bring about an end to the blockade. Representatives of Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement launched a new round of reconciliation talks Tuesday, but chances for success are seen as slim because of deep distrust between the two sides.

In the absence of a unity deal, the rival governments moved ahead with separate plans for rebuilding Gaza, following Israel's three-week military offensive, launched to halt Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns. The fighting, which ended Jan. 18, killed some 1,300 Palestinians, according to human rights groups, and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes.

Initial estimates put physical and economic damage at about $2 billion.

'Positive talks' with donors
In the West Bank, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Wednesday he would ask donor countries for $2.8 billion for Gaza, citing a more thorough assessment. He said he has put together a reconstruction plan and will present it to representatives of 80 donor countries Monday in Sharm el-Sheik.

"From positive talks with the donors, I expect the donations to exceed the required figures," he said, but declined to give details of specific items. He has said in the past he would seek hundreds of millions of dollars alone for rebuilding homes.

A previous pledging conference in 2007 raised $7.7 billion for Fayyad's government through 2010.

Among those planning to attend the Sharm el-Sheik conference are U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Hamas is not invited, and the international community is unlikely to send huge sums directly to Hamas.

Still, the Gaza government on Wednesday completed its own 86-page reconstruction plan, seeking a total of $2.73 billion in foreign aid. Planning Minister Mohammed Awad of Hamas said the document would be sent to the Arab League and other potential donors, including international aid agencies.

Among other things, Hamas seeks to import 1,000 trailers as emergency housing, for a total cost of $19.5 million. It requests $3.7 million for buying heavy machinery for removing 1.5 million tons of rubble.

The plan also earmarks $16.5 million for recycling rubble, such as using broken concrete slabs to fortify Gaza City's fishermen's harbor. Hamas seeks $23 million for rebuilding parliament and another $12.8 million for a new government compound. It would cost $37 million to build new security installations, such as police stations and Interior Ministry buildings, according to the plan.

The authors add the caveat that all timetables in the plan, such as 24 months for rebuilding the security compounds, are "based on opening the borders."

Lining up for necessities
More than five weeks since the end of the war, most of the Gazans left homeless by Israel's onslaught are still scrambling for basic necessities, and the prospect of reconstruction seemed distant amid piles of rubble of homes demolished by Israeli army bulldozers in hard-hit neighborhoods close to the Israeli border.

Here, residents still line up every day for handouts of blankets, tea kettles, tooth brushes and other necessities. Most have rented temporary apartments, with money from the Hamas government or U.N. agencies, while others have squeezed into the homes of relatives.

On Wednesday, laborers in the Salam neighborhood near the border mixed cement to repair damage to homes and laid sewage pipes, after the Hamas government distributed some building materials. A foreman said the cement and pipes came from pre-war reserves, but that a lot more was needed.

But prospects for getting sufficient supplies into Gaza appear dim, and international donors have not yet come up with an agreed plan. It's also not clear who would lead the reconstruction effort.

Currently, Israel is not allowing cement, steel and pipes into Gaza, for fear they will be used by Hamas militants to build bunkers and rockets. Once reconstruction begins, Israel proposes working directly with international agencies on various projects, to make sure each shipment is accounted for.

John Ging, the top U.N. aid official, urged donor countries to push for open borders, saying anything less would only worsen Gaza's dire situation. Even before the war, the border closure wiped out private industry in Gaza and some three-quarters of 1.4 million Gazans depended on some aid handouts.

"The humanitarian problem here is huge and day by day it's getting worse and worse, because there is no solution until the crossing points open," Ging said. "The solution here is simple, but it's not happening."

In other developments Wednesday, Gaza militants fired two rockets toward Israel, and Israeli aircraft struck seven smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reinstated his top negotiator on a cease-fire with Hamas and a prisoner swap with the Islamic militants. Olmert had fired Amos Gilad last week after the negotiator publicly criticized the prime minister.