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Gaza Recovery in Doubt as Israel Pressures Hamas
Gaza recovery in doubt as Israel pressures Hamas
By Adam Entous and Nidal al-Mughrabi | Reuters
Israel all but ruled out on Friday a full reopening of border crossings with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip any time soon, leaving a shaky ceasefire and post-war reconstruction in doubt.
While a U.N. official praised Israel's "goodwill" for letting some 120 truckloads per day of food and medicine into Gaza, diplomats decried restrictions on steel, cement and cash imports needed to make repairs from Israel's 22-day offensive.
Barring a swift change in Israeli policy, a senior Western diplomat said the emergency response and long-term reconstruction were "bound to fail."
U.S. officials voiced support, under certain conditions, for opening the crossings more fully, but they set no timetable.
John Ging, who heads the operations of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip, said the end-result of Israel's war, which killed 1,300 Palestinians and injured more than 5,000 others, was "more extremists."
Hamas has conditioned abiding by the ceasefire, which took effect on Sunday, on Israel lifting its crippling blockade.
But a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to rule that out. "If opening the passages will strengthen Hamas, we won't do it," he said.
Israel believes the restrictions at the crossings will give it leverage in Egyptian-mediated negotiations with Hamas to free Gilad Shalit, a captured Israeli soldier. But Israel finds itself under increasing pressure to do more to ease hardships for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday Gaza's border crossings should be reopened to both humanitarian and commercial goods under a "monitoring regime" that includes the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas's rival.
Obama plans to dispatch his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to the region soon to try to shore up the ceasefire, which Israel declared after Washington promised to help prevent Islamist Hamas from rearming.
The new administration has met with skepticism from Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian ballot only to be shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel. The isolation deepened when Hamas routed Abbas's secular Fatah to take over Gaza 18 months later.
Obama on Thursday said an outline for a "durable ceasefire" included Hamas stopping cross-border rocket fire, which Israel had cited as the reason for its Gaza offensive. He also voiced sorrow at civilian suffering in the impoverished territory.
"We had expected Obama to express willingness to talk about the real and the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people," said Hamas official Mushir al-Masri.
He urged the new U.S. president to "stand at an equal distance in the Palestinian-Zionist conflict, and break with the flagrant American historical bias."
Hamas dispatched a three-man delegation to Cairo for Egyptian-brokered ceasefire talks. Israel's envoy, defense official Amos Gilad, held talks there on Thursday.
HAMAS CHIEFS HIDE
Reeling from an air-and-ground assault which wrecked Gaza's infrastructure, Palestinians gathered for weekly prayers on Friday as Hamas security forces led clean-up efforts.
Conspicuous by their absence were Hamas chiefs who remained in hiding out of concern Israel may try to assassinate them. Two of the faction's seven top Gaza leaders were killed by air strikes during the offensive.
Despite assertions by Israeli leaders that Hamas had been dealt a serious blow, nearly three out of four Israelis expected more violence to break out in the next year or two, according to a poll in the Maariv newspaper.
Diplomats said the Israeli restrictions and Palestinian infighting meant even modest repairs would be difficult to make.
Hamas still controls the Gaza Strip and plans to start distributing up to 4,000 euros ($5,182) in cash to families hard hit by Israel's offensive.
But the Western-backed Palestinian Authority under Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wants to take the lead in any rebuilding, prompting calls for formation of a unity government.
Israeli officials have ruled out dealing with such a government unless Hamas abandons its rejection of coexistence with the Jewish state.
Olmert's adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said cement and steel, which could be used by militants to build more rockets and bunkers, were not immediate priorities and would have to wait.
Under such restrictions, diplomats said, Gaza's sewage and water system, heavily damaged in the bombing, would have a hard time recovering.
The head of the Palestinian Water Authority, Rebhi al-Sheikh, said it would take at least six months to bring in all of the needed materials and complete the repairs, but he expressed confidence international aid organizations would prevail on Israel to cooperate.
"Pipes can be used for many things," a senior Israeli official said when asked about importing them to repair the water system.
As for the nearly $60 million in cash Abbas wants to send to the Gaza Strip, the Israeli official added: "We assume whatever cash goes in will be expropriated."