Billions promised, but Gazans still waiting

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.

Yet the people of Gaza quivered in their wintry tent encampments, waiting for the manure to be spread.

They’re still in the tents. Sweltering now with the onset of the long heat that runs from April until November in Gaza.

What happened to the cash?

After all, when the money was promised, diplomats claimed it would be easy enough to figure out a way to give the aid money without letting Hamas get its hands on it. That was important because the U.S. wouldn’t give a cent if it might end up paying for more missiles aimed at Israel. Last week a Florida congresswoman told Clinton the aid money was “a bailout for Hamas.”

Most Arab states were keen to back the Palestinian Authority, which is still engaged in a civil war with Hamas. No problem, diplomats said at the time, we can set up mechanisms to get around Hamas.

European diplomats and Jerusalem-based aid agencies tell GlobalPost that these claims turned out to be hot air. Basic humanitarian aid, such as food, gets through no problem. But the rest of the cash remains unused.

Diplomats are concerned that even if the aid doesn’t go directly to Hamas, the Islamic party which took over absolute control of Gaza two years ago might tax or divert the money — or simply steal it, as its militiamen did when they raided a U.N. food warehouse after the end of the fighting.

The donors thought the situation would become clearer after the formation of a new Israeli government and with progress in Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks between Hamas and their West Bank rivals, Fatah.

No luck. Hamas and Fatah seem to be drifting further apart, maneuvering behind the scenes as they prepare for a new round of talks.

Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah, lacks urgency due to the fact that it’s still receiving the money it has been promised by the United States. Hamas hasn’t been doing much to kiss and make up, either. A Human Rights Watch report released last week said Hamas killed at least 32 political rivals during the Israeli assault and in the three months since. It also shot 49 Palestinians in the legs and broke the legs or arms of another 73, according to the rights group.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a review of the policy of barring construction materials from Gaza, after he took office a month ago. But the review isn’t due to be completed for another three weeks, according to officials in Netanyahu’s office.

“Keeping the money out of the hands of Hamas is a challenge,” says one Israeli official. “Whether the money is dollars, Euros or shekels, no one has easy answers.”

It turns out blame is easier to spread than money.

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