Rebuilding Gaza a Political Minefield

The international community faces both political and physical challenges.

January 29, 2009, 1:52 PM

JERUSALEM, Israel, Jan 29, 2009— -- With much of Gaza lying in ruin, the international community faces both physical and political challenges in the daunting task of its rebuilding.

Millions of dollars of aid needs to be poured into the devastated territory – but the question of who will administer and oversee the reconstruction is not settled.

The three-week-long Israeli bombardment of Gaza did not wrest control of the area from Hamas, the homegrown Islamic group. Its men walk the streets to ensure law and order.

While its policemen patrol bombed-out neighborhoods, its politicians are calling on the world for recognition.

"I tell European nations ... three years of trying to eliminate Hamas is enough," Khaled Meshaal, the group's political leader, said last week in a televised speech from Damascus, the Syrian capital.

"It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle," he said.

Western donors keen to help with the rebuilding refuse to deal with the Hamas government, however. It is considered a terrorist organization by both the European Union and the United States.

They prefer to deal with Mahmoud Abbas, head of rival Palestinian faction Fatah and Palestinian Authority president.

Abbas may be recognized by foreign diplomats as the official voice of the Palestinian community, but his power and popularity at home in the West Bank are dwindling.

Hamas has already begun doing what it can to help the citizens of Gaza, including handing out money to the many people who have lost their homes.

Since the shaky truce took hold Jan. 18, the Hamas leadership, from exile in Damascus and hideout locations in Gaza, has been calling on the international community not to hand construction aid money to what they consider "corrupt" officials in the Palestinian Authority.

"Frankly, we do not trust the authority in Ramallah. I do not think it fair or credible, and therefore we caution against sending monies in a way that they will reach the pockets of officials," Mohammad Nazzal, a Hamas official, was quoted by the Palestinian News Network as saying at talks in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday.

Hamas has been urging the world to acknowledge them and to deal directly with them.

The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, wants to head the long-term reconstruction process in Gaza and is calling for a change in the territory's government. Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 elections and took over Gaza by force in June 2007.

"In order for the reconstruction of Gaza to begin, there has to be a different political reality in Gaza, an atmosphere of security, safety and trust," Dr. Samir Abdallah, Palestinian minister of planning, told ABC News.

"No one wants to talk to Hamas."

Abdallah argued that the international community needs to be assured that staff will be able to work in Gaza without any danger. And this will not be possible, he said, if Hamas remains in power.

"We need a government capable of gaining the trust of all the donor countries," Abdallah said.

The minister said that representatives from donor countries have indicated to him that they, too, favor a new government in Gaza.

"We don't need a national Palestinian government [composed of Fatah and Hamas], but a government which consists of independent members and agreed upon by all the Palestinian factions," he said.

Some political leaders in Israel have made no secret of their desire to see Hamas removed. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the governing Kadima Party, has said that ousting Hamas was Israel's "long-term objective."

And Benjamin Netanyahu, the front-runner in the Israeli elections next month, warned, "In the long run, there won't be any other choice but to topple the Hamas government."

The Israeli leaders do not want Hamas to play a leading role in reconstruction.

"What we want to see is the reconstruction of Gaza. What we don't want to see is the reconstruction of Hamas," Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli government, told ABC News.

"It is important that the international community make sure that the reconstruction aid reaches the people of Gaza directly and that there will not be any mechanism to re-empower Hamas," Regev said.

To complicate the situation, Iran has been vocal in its desire to be involved in Gaza's reconstruction, airing plans to rebuild the Palestinian legislative council.

On Sunday, according to Iranian state television, parliamentary Chairman Ali Larijani said that Iran feels that it is its "duty to continue [its] endeavor to reconstruct the glorious Gaza" and that Iran "will undertake the reconstruction of the Palestinian parliament building in Gaza."

Abdallah said that Iran was using the Israeli-Palestinian confilct for its own purposes and "the coming era will not allow this to happen."

Meanwhile the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, on whose shoulders much of the reconstruction work will fall, objects to Israeli policy. "There will be no reconstruction unless Israel opens all crossing borders" into Gaza, which Israel blockaded after Hamas took power, spokesman Adnan Abu Hasnan said.

Aid organizations have millions of dollars set aside but cannot begin work without Israel's help.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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