Money will not fix the problem in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned on Monday, despite the largesse of donors in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. Abbas was addressing a donor conference at which Western and Arab governments arrived bearing pledges of $5.2 billion for the territory devastated by Israel's 22-day offensive almost double the amount requested by the Palestinian Authority. But the beleaguered leader pointed out that rebuilding Gaza was fundamentally a political challenge. Indeed, facilitating any progress for the Middle East's most intractable conflict will require that the Obama Administration revisit two articles of faith of the Bush Administration: a refusal to accept Hamas as a legitimate representative of a substantial section of the Palestinian population; and a reticence to apply pressure on a reluctant Israel to take steps that may break the impasse.
Getting help to Gaza poses a series of interrelated political challenges. For starters, there's no formal cease-fire in the conflict that brought about Gaza's devastation. Egypt had managed to bring the two sides to the brink of a deal two weeks ago, before internal political dynamics prompted the Israelis to back out at the eleventh hour. So even as donors discuss rebuilding Gaza, Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli military strikes continue, and may even escalate. Last weekend Israel declared that rocket fire could provoke it once again to unleash its vast destructive power on Gaza, casting a shadow over any reconstruction effort. (See pictures of Gaza digging out.)
More urgently, the Israelis have restricted humanitarian aid into Gaza, prompting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to warn at the donor conference, "The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in." He and French President Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized the need for Israel to open the crossings. Following a recent visit to Gaza, Senator John Kerry had to lobby Defense Minister Ehud Barak to allow in shipments of pasta, which the Israelis did not categorize as a humanitarian essential. Reconstruction is also impossible without concrete, glass and metals, all of which Israel has barred from entering Gaza, on the grounds that these could somehow be used to create weapons.
But Israel is in no mood to be told to ease up on Gaza: Prime Ministerdesignate Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend urged Western countries to refrain from sending funds to the territory while rocket fire continued. The border crossings were to have been opened under the cease-fire deal brokered by Egypt, which included mechanisms to prevent Hamas from using the crossings and the organization's tunnel system to smuggle new weapons into Gaza. But the truce remains in limbo, now that Israel has insisted on first securing the release of a soldier held captive in Gaza since 2006 (which will involve a prisoner swap with Hamas). Relief and reconstruction efforts remain almost paralyzed by the unresolved security standoff.
Then there's the question of governance in Gaza. Hamas has emerged from Israel's offensive in an even stronger political position than ever among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world. And that's a massive problem for the U.S., which has spearheaded an effort to choke off Gaza's economy in the hopes of toppling Hamas. The U.S. and other donors have insisted that any money allocated to Gaza should go through either international organizations or the Palestinian Authority in order to be kept out of the hands of Hamas. The Islamists may be willing to go along with that, as long as the aid is not linked to efforts to oust them. "We don't want the money to be deposited in Hamas bank accounts, nor the accounts of [its government]," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, criticizing his organization's exclusion from Monday's conference. "We want the money to reach the beneficiaries, those whose homes and institutions were destroyed."
The only way Abbas can operate in Gaza, of course, is with the consent of Hamas. Recognizing the failure of efforts to topple Hamas through economic and military pressure, Egypt has brought the rival Palestinian factions together to negotiate the creation of a unity government. That project has the backing of the entire Arab world and also the tacit approval of key U.S. allies in Europe. But last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that unless Hamas formally recognizes Israel and renounces violence, "I don't think [a unity government] will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads to a Palestinian state." Still, U.S. skepticism is unlikely to prevent the creation of a Palestinian unity government, which would restore Hamas' position as a key component of the Palestinian Authority. And if, as expected, a unity government agreement involves new elections in the West Bank and Gaza within the next year, the smart money right now would be on Hamas winning any such poll.
Clinton traveled from Sharm al-Sheikh to Israel for a listening tour. She's unlikely to find much encouraging about what she hears. The Obama Administration has made a priority of securing a cease-fire in Gaza to enable reconstruction and pressing for a two-state solution to the conflict. But Israel's incoming government, which is not yet finalized, is led by a hawkish politician who refuses to endorse the principle of a two-state solution. Netanyahu says "the Palestinians should govern their own lives without threatening ours," by which he means that Israel's security demands preclude independence for the Palestinians. A Palestinian state, Netanyahu argues, would have to forgo the right to maintain an army, and accept Israeli control of its airspace, electromagnetic spectrum and border crossings. Needless to say, he's unlikely to find any Palestinian takers for those terms.
Despite the donor conference, the reality confronting the Obama Administration is that the principal players on both sides of Israeli-Palestinian conflict don't share its vision, and that imperils everything from rebuilding Gaza to achieving a political settlement to the conflict. Something will have to give.