Billions for Gaza, Donors Want Siege Off

International donors pledged on Monday, March 2, almost 4.5 billion dollars for the reconstruction of the bombed-out Gaza Strip and the Palestinian economy and called for the "unconditional" opening of all Gaza’s borders.

"We have gathered today 4.481 billion dollars, in addition to previous pledges," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said, reading from a final statement issued at the end of an international donor conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

He said the pledges were new and would be paid over the next two years.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $300 million for Gaza reconstruction and $600 million to support the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority’s budget shortfalls, economic reforms and security and private sector projects run by the PA.

She was adamant that none of the money, which has to be agreed by the US Congress, would go to Hamas.

"We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands."

The European Commission pledged 440 million euros ($554.1 million) for Gaza and Palestinian Authority reforms.

Oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion and Qatar said it would pay $250 million.

Britain also said it would pay $43 million to rebuild Gaza’s economy.

The Palestinian Authority had hoped to raise $2.78 billion at the event, including $1.33 billion for Gaza.

The one-day conference was called by Egypt after Israel’s deadly 22-day war in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 people, mostly civilians, and wounded 5,450.

The offensive also left a trail of destruction in the sealed-off coastal enclave, home to 1.6 million people.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 4,100 homes have been totally destroyed and 17,000 damaged.

About 1,500 factories and workshops, 30 mosques, 31 government buildings and 10 water or sewage pipes were also damaged.

Open Crossings

Abul Gheit said international donors had called for the "unconditional" opening of all Gaza’s borders with Israel.

The UN and aid agencies insist rebuilding the coastal enclave was a daunting task so long as border crossings with battered Gaza remained closed.

"The situation at the border crossings is intolerable," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the meeting earlier in the day.

"Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in.

"Our first and indispensable goal, therefore, is open crossings."

Israel tightened its grip on Gaza’s border crossings after Hamas took control in June 2007, refusing the entry of materials such as cement and steel it says could be used to build rockets.

Egypt, which also borders Gaza, refuses to open its Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only window to the outside world, for normal traffic.

"Gaza should not actually be a prison with open skies," French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the conference.

Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair called Sunday for reopening Gaza crossings and lifting the 20-month crippling blockade on the overcrowded strip.

"A blockade of all the Gazan people does not work," he told reporters during his first visit to Gaza.

The US and Israel led an international campaign to impose a crippling siege on Gaza since Hamas swept Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and came to power.

"I think there is a recognition that we have got to change our strategy towards Gaza," Blair said.
( and Agencies)

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