International donors pledge $5.2 billion for Gaza reconstruction
Egypt FM: Figure is 'beyond our expectations'; Clinton: Mideast peace can't afford delays.
Egypt's foreign minister on Monday said international donors have pledged $5.2 billion in new funds at the conference for rebuilding Gaza, devastated during Israel's offensive against its Hamas rulers.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the figure is "beyond our expectations." He said other nations recommitted themselves to funds they promised in the past but never delivered, bringing the total to $5.2 billion in pledges.
Palestinian Planning Minister Samir Abdullah said the money from Monday's conference is earmarked for humanitarian aid to Gaza, rebuilding in the territory and budget support to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
He could not immediately say how much was going to each fund.
The international donors' conference aimed at rebuilding the war-torn Gaza Strip got underway without Hamas on Monday, as the group warned that the West's boycott of it would undercut international reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip.
"To bypass the legitimate Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip is a move in the wrong direction and it deliberately undermines the reconstruction," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said from Gaza.
Clinton: Mideast peace cannot afford more delays
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told delegates at the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh earlier on Monday that U.S. aid for the Palestinians was part of a broader push into a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
"We cannot afford more setbacks or delays - or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made," she said in apparent reference to the failure of previous peace initiatives.
"It is time to look ahead with an eye on the human aspects of what years of regional conflict have meant for the Palestinians and others," she said. "The United States is committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts."
In her address to the conference aimed at rebuilding the war-torn Gaza Strip, Clinton announced U.S. aid of more than $900 million for the Palestinians overall and said stringent safeguards were in place to ensure no funds went to Hamas.
She gave no breakdown of the funds, but her spokesman, Robert A. Wood, said on Sunday that it included $300 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza and about $600 million in budget and development aid to the West Bank based Palestinian Authority.
The Islamist group, which seized power of Gaza in a bloody 2007 coup, was not invited to take part in the conference.
"Our response to today's crisis in Gaza cannot be separated from our broader efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace," Clinton said, on her first trip to the region as the new top U.S. diplomat.
"Only by acting now can we turn this crisis into an opportunity to move us closer to our shared goals," added Clinton. Later on Monday, in her first foray into Middle East peacemaking, Clinton will go to Israel and the West Bank.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were among the high-profile delegates in attendance at the conference, along with 45 foreign ministers.
Of the more than $900 million in U.S. funding, which has to be agreed by the U.S. Congress, only a third was earmarked specifically to provide urgent humanitarian aid for Gaza after Israel's military offensive in December.
Clinton was adamant that none of that money would go to Hamas, which rules Gaza and which Washington labels a terrorist organization. "We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands," she said.
A key goal of the U.S. funding is to shore up the Western-backed government of Abbas, who governs the West Bank.
"We will work with our Palestinian partners, President Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad to address critical humanitarian, budgetary, security and infrastructure needs," said Clinton.
Of the U.S. package, $200 million will help cover budget shortfalls of Abbas's government and $400 million for economic reform and private sector and other projects on the West Bank.
Palestinian factions are in reconciliation talks to form a unity government that could include Hamas.
Clinton reiterated a U.S. demand that to be recognized in that government, Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. She said by providing humanitarian aid to Gaza the United States wanted to foster conditions in which a separate Palestinian state could be fully realized.
"This positive approach I have just outlined offers an opportunity for even greater progress if our Palestinian partners can continue to work with us and abide by the [Palestinian Authority] ... commitments to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist," she added.
Mubarak: Israeli-Palestinian peace will come this year
In his opening remarks to the conference, Mubarak told delegates that cease-fire deal between Israel and the Palestinians was of utmost importance, adding that the goal of the gathering was to help the two sides reach a truce.
"I see a momentum in peace efforts. I look forward that this year will be the year of peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians," Mubarak said.
He also told donors that aid was needed for Gaza but could not compensate for the 1,300 Palestinian lives lost during the 22-day Israeli offensive. "I reach to you with an appeal from the heart to declare tangible pledges," he said.
Mubarak warned Hamas that it mustn't treat the donors' pledges as a conquest of war. He cautioned that rebuilding Gaza following Israel's three-week offensive in January would depend on several factors, including a long-term truce and the opening up of the area's closed border crossings.
The United Nations and aid agencies have warned that rebuilding the coastal enclave was a daunting task as long as border crossings between Israel and Gaza remained closed.
"The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told donors at a one-day conference on Gaza in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
"Our first and indispensable goal, therefore, is open crossings. By the same token, however, it is therefore essential to ensure that illegal weapons do not enter Gaza."
Taking the stand, Sarkozy urged responsible Palestinians to seek peace with Israel - and said the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners is a priority.
"You must admit that there is no other road to the creation of a Palestinian state but to engage resolutely in searching for a political solution and engage in a dialogue with Israel," Sarkozy said in a clear message to the militant group.
The conference was to call on 80 donor countries and international organizations to give at least $2.8 billion for the battered coastal area.