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£1.7 billion pledge to rebuild Gaza

Donors at an international conference have promised 2.7 billion dollars (£1.7bn) to rebuild the war-ravaged Gaza Strip - but key participants said the efforts would be futile without a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

US-mediated talks broke down this summer before the 50-day war between Hamas and Israel began - the third since 2008 - and it remains unclear how peace can come about.

Norwegian foreign minister Borge Brende, who co-chaired the one-day meeting with Egypt in Cairo, said pledges of 5.4 billion dolars (£3.4bn) had been made, but only half of that money would be "dedicated" to the reconstruction of the coastal strip.

He did not say what the other half of the funds would be spent on, but o ther delegates have spoken of budgetary support, boosting economic activity, emergency relief and other projects.

"The message was clear to the international community that the Palestinian brothers are not alone," Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri said after the meeting.

Qatar offered the biggest donation of one billion dollars (£625m), once again using its vast wealth to reinforce its role as a regional player. The United Arab Emirates, a Gulf Arab rival of Qatar, promised 200 million (£125m).

The pledges followed US secretary of state John Kerry's announcement of immediate American assistance of 212 million dollars (£132.5m). The European Union pledged 450 million euros (£355m), while Turkey, which has been playing a growing regional role, said it was donating 200 million dollars.

Qatari foreign minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, in announcing his country's pledge, condemned the "international silence" that surrounded Gaza's destruction.

"While the Palestinian people need financial support, they need more political support from the international community," he said. "A just peace is the only real guarantee for not destroying what we are about to rebuild and reconstruct."

Delegates representing about 50 nations and 20 regional and international organisations applauded the pledge by Qatar. The Emirates and Saudi Arabia, however, claim Qatar is using its wealth to undermine regional stability, primarily through meddling in other nations' affairs and aiding militant Islamic groups.

Conference organisers hope the pledges will be paid over a three-year period to aid reconstruction in Gaza, which borders Israel and Egypt. Both countries have blockaded Gaza since Hamas took power there in 2007, causing the territory of 1.8 million people economic hardship and high unemployment.

Donors plan to funnel the aid through Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority, bypassing Hamas. Mr Abbas and Hamas recently formed a national unity government and its deputy prime minister, Mohammed Mustafa, acknowledged there would difficulties for the funds to arrive quickly and be appropriated.

Western-backed Mr Abbas said the Palestinian government "will carry out the reconstruction plan with full responsibility and transparency in co-ordination with the UN, the donors, international financial institutions, civil society and the private sector".

But leading participants said Gaza's reconstruction could not be done in isolation from efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on a lasting settlement.

"We must not lose sight of the root causes of the recent hostilities: a restrictive occupation that has lasted almost half a century, the continued denial of Palestinian rights and the lack of tangible progress in peace negotiations," said United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who later announced he would visit Gaza tomorrow.

"I call on all parties to come together to chart a clear course toward a just and final peace," he said. "Going back to the status quo is not an option; this is the moment for transformational change."

The latest conflict in Gaza was the most ruinous of the three wars, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians - mostly civilians, the UN said. Another 11,000 were wounded, and around 100,000 people are homeless.

Mr Kerry told delegates that Gazans "need our help desperately - not tomorrow, not next week, but they need it now".

He said the new US money, which nearly doubles American aid to the Palestinians this year, would go to security, economic development, food and medicine, and shelter, water and sanitation projects.

He later stressed the need to move beyond aid by addressing the underlying causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Israel clearly has a right to be deeply concerned about rockets and tunnels, and security of its citizens," he said. "And Palestinians have a right to be concerned about day-to-day life and their rights and their future aspirations to have a state."

Mr Kerry, who mediated the failed peace negotiations earlier this year, said the talks made "significant progress" in some areas and left everyone with a clear picture of what both sides needed for a peace agreement.

"We are going to continue to push," he said.

Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose government negotiated the ceasefire that ended the war, said the reconstruction effort hinged on a "permanent calm" between Hamas and Israel, and required the exercise of "full authority" by the Palestinian Authority led by Mr Abbas.

Cairo's relations with Hamas have been tense since Egypt's military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and threw its weight behind Mr Abbas.

Mr Abbas urged the international community to support his bid for the UN Security Council to dictate the ground rules for any future talks with Israel, including a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: "I want to stress one more time that the solution for Gaza cannot be found in Gaza alone. Only a credible resumption of the peace negotiations can allow for a durable solution to the current crisis.

"This must be the last time in which the international community is called upon to rebuild Gaza."


From Belfast Telegraph