If President Barack Obama had hoped to ease his way in to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, January's war in Gaza made the issue an urgent priority for his new Administration. Three weeks of pummeling by Israel aimed at dislodging the Palestinian militants of Hamas had left many thousands of Palestinians living in smoldering rubble. It had enraged the Arab world and enfeebled the moderate Palestinian leadership on which Washington had long relied to deliver peace with Israel. And the inconclusive note on which the Gaza fighting had ended underscored the fact that it could flare up again at any moment. (See pictures of the January 2009 conflict.)
The new Administration swung quickly into action, appointing Senator George Mitchell as a Special Envoy to the region to cement a Gaza truce and prepare the ground for revived peace negotiations, and backing an international donor conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh last March at which almost $5 billion was pledged for the rebuilding of Gaza. But as Prime Minister Benamin Netanyahu heads for Washington on Monday, the sobering reality is that none of the aid pledged to Gaza is getting in, and the area remains a potential tinderbox that could wreck Obama's hopes for reviving Middle East peace talks.
"There's no reconstruction aid getting in," says John Ging, who runs the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza. "That's the terrible reality we're dealing with here." (See pictures of the area in the days after the war.)
A number of factors contribute to the stalemate: Israel refuses to allow building materials into Gaza; the continued smuggling of weapons into the area by Hamas does little to persuade the Israelis to relax their choke-hold on the territory that houses 1.5 million Palestinians; and the rival Palestinian factions Fatah (which controls the West Bank) and Hamas (which runs Gaza) can't agree on a unity government that would provide international donors a fig-leaf to bypass restrictions on dealing with Hamas, which the U.S. and European Union have declared a terrorist organization.
The damage left by the Israeli assault, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed over 4,000 homes and buildings, followed three years of an economic blockade aimed at forcing Hamas out of power. "We were like a patient in intensive care for the last three years, and then the Israelis attacked," says Gaza journalist Azmy Keshawi.
Netanyahu will certainly arrive at White House anticipating a push from Obama to ease up restrictions that prevent Gaza's re-construction. That call has already been made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and by Special Envoy Mitchell. Israeli newspapers report that the country's Foreign Ministry, mindful of the international criticism over the Gaza assault, is urging Netanyahu to agree, but the Defense Ministry wants to keep the gates locked to prevent the concrete and steel needed to repair or rebuild homes, schools and other facilities from being diverted for the construction of underground bunkers or home-made rockets. The debate in Jerusalem still raged, with Netanyahu undecided days before his departure. (Read more about Netanyahu.)
Driving around Gaza last week, I saw Palestinians wandering like sleepwalkers through the rubble, sometimes pulling out a kitchen pot or a child's garment from a heap of concrete chunks and wire that had once been an apartment building. We stopped by a grand house with two large palm trees, the tops sheared off by heavy-caliber shells. Garden walls had been knocked down and the house extensively damaged by Israeli tanks. "I had an offer to sell my house for $350,000 a week before the Israelis invaded, and I didn't do it," sighed the owner, Nasser Ashoor.
His repair bill is astronomical. Cement should sell for $4 a bag, but because of the Israeli blockade, it is smuggled in through the tunnels from Egypt, which pushes the price up to $40 a bag. Prices have risen because Egypt, under pressure from Israel and the U.S. has closed many of the smugglers' tunnels, most of which had been used to bring in everyday goods kept out by the blockade. Ashoor points to his empty window frames, and explains, "You can't bring glass in through the tunnels."
Behind the house is Ashoor's empty bird coop. "I had lovebirds. They sang so beautifully. But we were trapped by gunfire for days and couldn't feed them. They died," he says. There was something about his lovebirds starving to death that seemed a greater injustice to him than his destroyed mansion.
Israel's list of goods allowed into Gaza is short food, medicine, and recently, paper for schoolbooks. Its list of prohibited items is long, and sometimes bizarre. Macaroni was only recently removed from the forbidden list. Netanyahu is reportedly willing to let in more food, but as UNRWA's Ging observes: "Bringing in immediate humanitarian aid isn't enough. There's no construction, no re-construction, no economy left in Gaza. You're creating the conditions for more extremism." Netanyahu, no doubt, will be hearing the same message in the White House.