SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) A donor conference to rebuild the Gaza Strip raised big contributions from Arab countries and the U.S. on Sunday, and saw a Gulf state known for close ties with Hamas outbid the rest.
Qatar, long a supporter of Islamists throughout the region, led the contributors with a $1 billion donation. Other big Arab contributors included Kuwait, which pledged $200 million, and Saudi Arabia, which had promised $500 million before the conference began. The U.S. agreed to assist Gaza with $212 million in aid.
The meeting, hosted in Cairo with the help of the Norwegian government, followed the summer’s 50-day conflict with Israel, which left many neighborhoods in Gaza destroyed, along with much of the territory’s infrastructure.
The Palestinian Authority pitched the rebuilding effort as not only a chance to repair the damage from the conflict, but also to encourage development in the Gaza Strip—a step seen as crucial to easing tension between Israel and militant groups there. It also pledged to take control of Gaza, which has been run independently for the past seven years by Hamas after the Islamists ousted the authority in 2007.
“Gaza remains a tinderbox,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking to donors. “Yet we must not lose sight of the root causes of the recent hostilities,” which he blamed on blockades on the Gaza Strip by neighboring Israel and Egypt in attempts to isolate Hamas.
In the lead-up to the conference, other Gulf states and the U.S. had seen donations as a chance to “remove Qatar and the political factions within Hamas that are tied to Doha,” from control of postwar Gaza, said Theodore Karasik, head of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
But the large Qatari contribution, larger than that of the three largest other donors combined, reduces that possibility.
Until the start of latest conflict between Israel and Hamas on July 8, Qatar was the Gaza Strip’s largest foreign benefactor.
In the past year, Qatar began building apartment blocks, setting up a clinic for people with amputated limbs, and refurbishing a large number of roads, including two arteries that run north to south the length of the strip. About half of a $407 million injection made last April has already been spent, according to Ahmed Abu Rass, a Gaza-based Palestinian who is in charge of the Qatari projects.
Qatar has already pledged to give $1,000 each to families in Gaza who lost houses in the Israeli offensive and has been bankrolling the salaries of Hamas government employees in Gaza.
Israel and Egypt, which control the border crossings into Gaza, have yet to indicate whether they will allow in future aid from Qatar. Egypt, however, has allowed shipments of construction goods for the existing Qatari projects through its Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip for more than a year.
Ziad Abu Amr, the deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, said Qatar “wants to be there” in Gaza, but acknowledged that the reconstruction would have to take place under a modified political setup that excludes Hamas, not least because Western donors including the U.S., U.K. and European Union can’t legally give money directly to Hamas, which they have listed as a terrorist group.
Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas and other Islamists has caused friction with its Gulf neighbors since the onset of the Arab Spring three years ago, which vaulted Islamism to the vanguard of regional revolutions and raised Qatar’s profile as a primary backer.
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s first post-revolution president in June 2012 was a high-water mark that seemed to open doors for greater Qatari involvement in Gaza given Egypt’s control of the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only outlet to a country other than Israel.
It was against that backdrop that former Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani visited Gaza in October 2012 and pledged it $407 million later that year.
Since then, however, the political winds have changed drastically, while most of Qatar’s projects remain unfinished. Mr. Morsi was deposed last summer in a military coup, and his replacement, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, has outlawed the Brotherhood and cut off formal ties with Hamas. Gulf countries have stood squarely behind Mr. Sisi and ostracized Qatar.
Meanwhile, Israel contends that some of the building materials allowed through Rafah for Qatar’s projects—the shipments continued under Mr. Sisi, but at a slower pace—went into tunnels Hamas fighters used to infiltrate under the Israeli border both before and during the recent war.
Most of the tunnel-construction material came from Egypt through former smuggling routes underneath the Rafah border, according to Guy Inbar, the spokesman for an Israeli military body that oversees shipments into Gaza. But some was destined for aid agencies and the Qatari projects, said the spokesman.
Mr. Rass disputed this claim, but acknowledged Qatar had received more cement than it needed for its projects because its supplier, a company called Sons of Sinai, wanted to send extra high-margin materials to cover its own high costs. An official at Sons of Sinai, which was granted exclusive rights to export to the Qatari projects under Mr. Sisi, said the company sent materials only according to Qatari orders.
It is unclear how much of this material, if any, could have wound up with Hamas—an estimate even the Israelis won’t make. But it is uncertainties such as these that irk Israel and its Western allies as they contemplate how to rebuild Gaza without enabling Hamas despite its de facto control on the ground.
“The balance between the pro- and anti-Hamas assistance might shift, but Hamas cannot be entirely avoided, nor can it be in complete control,” said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in Islamist movements.