Clinton in Egypt for Gaza Aid Meeting

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Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, March 2 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Egypt on Sunday for an international donor conference the Palestinians hope will raise billions of dollars to help rebuild war-torn Gaza.

The former first lady is on her first trip to the Middle East as America’s top diplomat since US President Barack Obama took office in January pledging a new spirit of global cooperation.

The United States is reportedly mulling a 900-million-dollar aid package to rebuild Gaza, which was devastated by Israel’s three-week war against its Hamas rulers in December and January and a continuing blockade.

Clinton will have to respond to the worries of European leaders who want Washington to pressure its top ally Israel to improve aid distribution to the Palestinian enclave.

She said on Friday the aid would depend on how well the Palestinians meet the conditions of the diplomatic Quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

“I will be announcing a commitment to a significant aid package, but it will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted,” she told Voice of America radio.

About 75 countries are taking part in the aid conference being held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday, six weeks after the guns largely fell silent around the impoverished enclave.

The Palestinian Authority seeking 2.8 billion dollars for rebuilding the territory of 1.4 million people, most of whom depend on aid from the United Nations.

But major donors are demanding that Gaza’s Islamist rulers agree to play no role in spending the cash, which they insist be handled by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas.

Clinton is due to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the conference and join a meeting of the Middle East peace Quartet.

From Egypt, she is due to visit Israel and the West Bank to try to advance peacemaking which ground to a halt after Israel launches it war on Gaza in late December which the aim of stopping militant rocket fire.

Israel’s 22-day onslaught destroyed homes, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure as well as killing more than 1,300 Palestinians.

In Egypt Clinton will be joined by a host of top world officials including UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana.

“We expect rapid international aid from all parties to completely rebuild Gaza,” Abbas told reporters on Saturday. “We also expect that as in the past there will be one mechanism, the Palestinian Authority.”

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas each want to lead the rebuilding effort, but Western countries — which blacklist the Islamists as terrorists — have said they will work only with Abbas.

“I would like to insist that the mechanism used to deploy the money is the one that represents the Palestinian Authority,” Solana said on Friday. “I don’t think there is a need for new mechanisms.”

However, the Palestinian leader’s control extends only to the West Bank since Hamas violently seized Gaza in June 2007, ousting Abbas loyalists after days of vicious factional fighting.

The Gaza economy was brought to its knees by the punishing blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas seized the enclave, whose borders, air space and territorial waters remain under Israeli control.

Neither Israel nor Hamas will be represented in Sharm, but the international communith is pushing for Israel to lift its blockade and for Hamas to reconciled with Fatah, backbone of the Palestinian Authority.

The rival Palestinian factions last week agreed to start working towards the creation of a national unity government.

In Sharm, Saudi Arabia is expected to reaffirm a commitment for one billion dollars, and the European Union has said it will grant 554 million dollars to the Palestinian people in 2009.

Donor countries from the January 2008 Paris conference will reiterate a pledge of 7.4 billion dollars in aid over 2008-2010, of which three billion has so far been distributed.

(source ANTARA/AFP)

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