PARIS – Hamas-ruled Gaza will likely see little of the unprecedented $7.4 billion in aid promised to the Palestinians by the international community on Monday.
While donor countries say they won’t ignore the growing suffering in that isolated territory, they don’t seem eager to channel large sums there that could inadvertently help prolong Hamas rule.
Still, the Islamic militants, pushed further into a corner, could emerge as perhaps the biggest spoiler of the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that the economic aid is meant to buttress.
Hamas has successfully derailed past peace efforts with attacks on Israel. A barrage of rocket attacks could provoke the Israeli military into invading Gaza.
The angry reaction by Hamas officials on Monday indicated Gaza’s cash-strapped rulers were rattled by the huge amounts promised to their rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denounced the Paris conference as a “declaration of war” on Hamas, while Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu accused the international community of trying to bribe Abbas into making concessions in negotiations with Israel.
Participants of the pledging conference avoided clear answers on what to do about Gaza, which has been cut off from the world since the violent Hamas takeover in June.
Most expressed concern about the humanitarian situation, which has deteriorated sharply since Israel and Egypt virtually halted access to Gaza after the Hamas takeover. As a result, tens of thousands of jobs were wiped out, and three-quarters of the 1.5 million Gazans live in poverty.
However, most speakers did not call for a lifting of the blockade of Gaza, even as they urged Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement, presumably in the Abbas-controlled West Bank.
Without calling openly for regime change, Western leaders have suggested that once the residents of Gaza see the benefits of peace, they’d become increasingly disillusioned with Hamas.
“In the end, if we get a strong process moving forward, I believe that all the Palestinian people will want to participate in a process leading to their own state,” international Mideast envoy Tony Blair said Monday, outlining his Gaza scenario.
Hamas has rejected repeated demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence in exchange for international acceptance.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad emphasized Monday that his three-year economic recovery plan, for which he received the aid, also includes Gaza. However, many of the development projects earmarked for Gaza would likely have to be put on hold until the blockade is lifted.
In the meantime, some donor money would reach Gaza through continued salary payments to some 50,000 Abbas-allied civil servants who have stayed at home since the takeover, rather than work for Hamas.
Also, the donors have been funding international aid agencies that try to alleviate suffering, including with food distributions.
Naji Shurrab, a political analyst in Gaza, said that “it’s very clear that Gaza has been dropped from the (aid) plans, or at least has been postponed.”
“This is a form of punishment for Hamas,” he added.
Arab donor states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been urging Abbas to try to negotiate another power-sharing deal with Hamas.
But Abbas made clear Monday that he will not trade vague promises from Hamas for the massive international support he enjoys now.
Using the high-profile stage in Paris, he dismissed Hamas leaders as “coup-seekers” and said he would not resume dialogue unless they handed back Gaza.
Persuading a hesitant Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank is another day-after challenge for the donors. The World Bank has said that even massive aid will not lead to Palestinian economic recovery unless Israel relaxes physical and administrative obstacles to travel and trade.
However, it remains unclear whether the international community is willing to exert pressure on Israel, even with such large sums at stake.
Blair, who has been shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians, is proposing a step-by-step approach. He is trying to get several “rapid impact” projects off the ground with Israeli cooperation, such as setting up an industrial park in the West Bank and repairing a Gaza sewage system. These projects would be a test of Israeli intentions.
Israel has signaled it wants to go slow. “In the end, it comes down to the details, checkpoint by checkpoint, step by step for a better future,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the donors.
However, back in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert quickly reassured his centrist Kadima Party that he would always put security first.
Politically weak ever since Israel’s war in Lebanon last year, Olmert needs to court hardline support, both from security hawks within Kadima and from two right-wing coalition partners, to stay in power.
This alignment would make it difficult for him to ease Palestinian movement in a significant way, or to declare a settlement freeze, as he is obligated to do under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.
Yet for Abbas, quick improvements on the ground are vital. The Palestinians are skeptical of the current peace efforts, and Abbas will have to show his people that moderation pays.
The unprecedented aid effort is also closely linked to renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, which could quickly be sabotaged by the old spoilers of Mideast peacemaking that have wiped out trust in the past.
“One or two serious suicide bombings, and no Israeli prime minister will be able to sustain this process,” said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.
The donors, meanwhile, appear to have learned from one past mistake – giving money without checking how it is spent. Over the past decade, more than $10 billion were given, with little to show for it today.
Some of the projects funded by aid were destroyed by Israeli-Palestinian fighting, but large sums were also squandered under Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
This time, the donors have built in tighter controls. While the donors were full of praise for Fayyad, a respected economist who helped clean up Arafat’s financial mess, they have also asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to give them detailed reports every three months.
Karin Laub, AP’s chief Ramallah correspondent, has been covering Israel and the Palestinian territories since 1987. AP reporters Amy Teibel and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Jerusalem and Gaza City.