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Billions promised, but Gazans still waiting

Four months on from the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Palestinians have seen little of the money pledged for reconstruction.

Palestinian employees stand outside destroyed Hamas government buildings in Gaza City, March 25, 2009. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

RAMALLAH — Money, wrote the English philosopher Francis Bacon, is like manure: of very little use unless it is spread.

Since an international aid conference in March promised $5.2 billion to rebuild Gaza, the stink of un-spread money has been strong in the nostrils. That’s particularly unpleasant for the people of Gaza, who also have to deal with a largely destroyed sewage system, thus giving them a double-helping of manure.

International diplomats, Israeli officials and leaders of the Palestinian Authority haven’t been able to figure out how to rebuild Gaza while keeping the cash out of the hands of Hamas, which runs the narrow strip of land. Food aid can get in, but substantial reconstruction hasn’t begun.

“The Sharm conference was just a big public relations stunt,” says a diplomat who works in the development arm of a European government. “The money promised for Gaza is just not there.”

Gaza’s 1.5 million people have been in desperate straits since the war there at the turn of the year. Israeli ground and air forces attacked Hamas to halt the Islamic group’s missile strikes on towns in southern Israel. About 1,300 people died.

At least 14,000 homes throughout the Gaza Strip were destroyed or badly damaged, according to the UN Development Program. Infrastructure, such as roads, water, sewage and electricity supply, were severely affected.

In early March, a wide range of international donors converged on the swanky Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Responding to public concern about the plight of ordinary Gazans, the donors dug deep. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised $900 million from the United States. Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion.

The total was put at $5.2 billion, though $700 million of that was made up of old pledges that hadn’t ever been fulfilled (a perverse international aid equivalent of re-gifting). New pledges amounted to $4.4 billion. That's more than Germany received, in real terms, under the Marshall Plan after World War II. It ought to have been enough to rebuild a place as small as Gaza where, it's fair to say, the residents have low expectations for the luxuriousness of their habitat.