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Clinton on first diplomatic trip to Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday opened her first trip to the Middle East as America's top diplomat, bearing an Obama administration pledge of up to $900 million to help rebuild the Gaza Strip.
/ Source: The Associated Press

.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday will pledge about $300 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for the war-torn Gaza Strip, plus about $600 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority, a U.S. official said Sunday.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters traveling with Clinton Sunday that she would announce the donations at an international pledging conference at this Red Sea resort. The conference is seeking money for Gaza and the Palestinian economy.

Obama administration officials had indicated last week that the U.S. was preparing to pledge $900 million in assistance for Gaza, but Wood's description of the plan Sunday indicated that the only portion going directly to rebuilding Gaza was the $300 million.

Wood said that while all of the money is subject to approval by Congress, the intent is to provide about $200 million to help the Palestinian Authority shore up a budget shortfall and another $400 million to assist Palestinian institutional reforms and economic development. Wood said some of the $400 million might wind up aiding Gaza, but he said that would depend on the Palestinian Authority.

Some portion of the $900 million total U.S. pledge had already been budgeted for 2009, Wood said, adding that he could not immediately provide a breakdown.

U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist group
Getting U.S. humanitarian aid quickly to Gaza is complicated by the U.S. refusal to funnel it through the Hamas militant movement that rules Gaza. The U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization. Wood said the U.S. aid that does not go directly to the Palestinian Authority would be funneled to Gaza through international organizations and agencies.

She also carried hopes of helping find the beginnings of a path ahead toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Clinton arrived at Sharm el-Sheik after an overnight flight from Washington and went quickly into a meeting with the Obama administration's Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, who is touring the region.

Clinton also will visit Israel and meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Donors at the Sharm el-Sheik conference will be asked to fund a $2.8 billion reconstruction plan put together by Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist. Hamas, which controls Gaza and does not recognize Israel's right to exist, was not invited.

Some aid to go into Gazans bank accounts
Fayyad wants most of the money funneled through his West Bank-based government. He already administers huge sums of foreign aid — $7.7 billion for 2008-2010 — and has been sending $120 million to Gaza each month for welfare and salaries of Abbas' former civil servants. Other aid, such as for rebuilding homes, would go directly to the bank accounts of Gazans.

Hamas prepared its own 86-page Gaza reconstruction plan and sent copies to the Arab League. But even if bypassed by the donors, as is likely, Hamas would benefit from any aid that eases pressure on it to help the needy.

Israel's offensive to halt Hamas rocket fire from Gaza ended with a cease-fire Jan. 18.

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