WASHINGTON (IPS) - Despite a desperate need to rebuild the Gaza Strip, viewed by many as a key ingredient to reuniting the Palestinian territories and building a two-state peace deal with Israel, it appears that the United States and the international community are poised to continue old, politically-charged policies that will impede progress.
Even before Israel’s three-week war on the Gaza Strip, some 80 percent of the besieged territory’s 1.5 million Palestinian residents reportedly depended on aid to meet their basic needs.
After the massive air, land and sea assaults of late December and January, those status quo demands have been exacerbated by the urgency of more humanitarian aid coupled with a need to rebuild the devastated Strip.
But it is not clear how much help — especially help from the US — will be able to make its way into the tightly sealed, 360-square-kilometer parcel of land or to its war-and poverty-ravaged population, resulting in what one analyst said would be severely slowed reconstruction.
Gaza’s borders and coastlines are controlled by Israel and Egypt, which have enforced a near total blockade for 18 months since the militant group Hamas seized power there, effectively cleaving Palestinian polity, economy and society in two.
Since then, Israel, the US and much of the international community have pursued a policy of isolating Hamas and building up the group’s rival, Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, but holds no sway in Gaza.
Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who notably pledged support after a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, led the international community in calls to raise money and bring relief to Gazans and their badly damaged enclave.
But rebuilding after attacks that leveled targets as widely varied as apartment buildings, roads, hospitals, universities, water-treatment facilities and civilian business infrastructure will likely be bogged down in a politicized process designed to marginalize Hamas and strengthen Fatah’s PA.
“This is part of the broader political struggle between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine,” said the Brookings Institution’s Tamara Cofman Wittes, an expert on US policy in the Middle East and the peace process.
Indeed, for the international community, rebuilding those parts of Gaza holds an opportunity to show its goodwill towards Palestinians. But that potential, particularly for Washington, is mired in doubt because of restrictions and opposition to Hamas.
However, the international community at-large will also likely have difficulties working on Gaza reconstruction.
After Hamas’s takeover of the Strip in June 2007, the Quartet, made up of Russia, the US, the UN and the European Union (EU), offered a deal that should Hamas accept three conditions — recognition of Israel, respect for previous peace accords, and renunciation of violence — aid would continue to flow. No such deal came, and with the fall of a national unity effort by the Palestinians, aid was funneled solely through the PA.
It appears now that the US will not be directly involved in aid programs to Gaza — especially reconstruction — and that the new administration of President Barack Obama will continue the George W. Bush policy of isolating and starving Hamas. That tack is seen by some as collective punishment of Gazans and a major impediment to development there.
In terms of the peace process, the challenge is especially daunting because both a robust US role and Palestinian unity are viewed as essential to progress.
“The American priority today is restoring American credibility. The point is restoring the credibility that what the US does actually has an impact,” said Robert Malley, a former high-level Mideast adviser to President Bill Clinton, now with the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“We have to recognize the collective failure of our approach — US, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab — towards the question of Hamas and the question of Gaza,” said Malley, insisting that didn’t necessarily entail engagement with Hamas but rather “a more nuanced pragmatic position.”
Speaking at the forum last week on how the US administration should handle the Middle East, Malley said that Gaza reconstruction — “a massive effort to help the people of Gaza” — could be a way to accomplish that ahead of what Washington pledged will be a strong, renewed US focus on the peace process.
But the push to help faces innumerable obstacles. Most notable are the ongoing Israeli siege, itself a reaction to Hamas rule; objections to Hamas’s continued public rejectionism; and the resulting refusal of some actors — significantly the Quartet and, most vociferously, the US — to deal with the political faction as the sole, viable power structure in Gaza.
“There is any number of options to undertake the reconstruction of Gaza, but not many by [the US],” said Aaron David Miller, a former high-level adviser to six US secretaries of state, now with the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
Miller pointed to US laws that prevent any material support to Hamas and a policy of the US administration to “not do anything that will strengthen Hamas in the aftermath of Israel’s attack”.
“I agree with Mr. Malley’s point that one of the ways to create greater confidence and inject American credibility into this situation would be to get our arms around the problem in Gaza,” he told IPS, “but we won’t or can’t.”
“The whole effort to rebuild Gaza is going to be retarded as a result of these political problems, which is bad for Palestinians,” he said.
Reconstruction aid is particularly challenging for the US because of Israel’s grip on the crossings into Gaza. With Hamas in control within the Strip’s borders, Israel is loathe to allow in many large reconstruction supplies, such as steel, which are necessary to rebuild but are seen as strengthening Hamas’s hand and even possibly providing materials for weapons.
Other US aid still sometimes makes its way into Gaza through the UN, even since the Israeli blockade began, according to Wittes, the Brookings analyst.
The UN distributes aid directly, she said, sometimes going so far as to actually make wire transfers from the West Bank directly into the bank accounts of civil servants in Gaza.
But some actors question even that sort of aid. “In any political conflict, humanitarian aid can become a little bit of a political football,” Wittes told IPS.
Wittes acknowledged that reconstruction aid is significantly more complicated than food, medicine and other humanitarian aid. “The set of problems in Gaza in terms of reconstruction is a different level of challenge,” she said. “That money is more difficult to get in.”
The US, she said, isn’t the only one trying to figure out how to get money and supplies into Gaza, citing a Saudi Arabian aid package that will flow through Abbas’s PA.
But restricted US aid, the Quartet’s stated opposition to Hamas, and British pledges made at Abbas’ side, indicate that most, if not all, international programs are destined to go through Fatah — perceived by most Palestinians as corrupt and a group Miller said was “not on the ground … not there” in Gaza.
Recognizing what Malley called “the necessity of Palestinian unity as a prerequisite for peace,” the continuing divisive international policies and resulting hindered reconstruction of Gaza could have broad implications for the peace process as a whole.
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