World faces challenge of rebuilding Gaza
Border closure and violence have slowed progress
BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip - The seven lagoons of sewage near Gaza's coast were supposed to be replaced by a globally funded waste treatment plant. Instead, they epitomize the nightmare faced by foreign donors as they seek to rebuild the territory and open a pathway to peace.
The multimillion dollar project has been delayed by violence and a 20-month-old border closure that have made it difficult to bring supplies into Gaza. Now, after Israel's devastating military offensive, clearing the lagoons is just one part of a much bigger challenge.
Tomorrow, some 80 donor countries meeting in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik will be asked to pledge at least $2.8 billion in aid to Gaza.
There's plenty of goodwill - Saudi Arabia has promised $1 billion and the United States $900 million - and the level of representation will be stellar, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and President Nicholas Sarkozy of France.
But for reconstruction to move forward smoothly, toward pacifying Gaza and opening new horizons for Mideast peace efforts, a series of improbable events would need to happen.
Gaza's Hamas rulers would probably have to reconcile with their moderate West Bank rivals, led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Islamic militants would then have to soften their violent anti-Israel ideology and agree to share power with Abbas.
Israel and Egypt would have to recognize Hamas's governing role and reopen the borders they closed after Hamas seized Gaza by force in June 2007. Recently, Israel has also linked a border opening to long-stalled negotiations on a prisoner swap with Hamas.
But the more likely prospect is that the Palestinians will fail to heal their split and Gaza's borders will remain largely closed. In this case, Israel will continue to keep tight control over concrete, steel, and other supplies needed for rebuilding 15,000 homes destroyed or damaged in the offensive it launched to halt Hamas rocket fire.
As it is, the Saudi pledge - along with a $250 million pledge from Qatar and $100 million from Algeria - has not materialized because of disagreements between Fatah and Hamas, an Arab League official said, speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A Hamas-Israel truce being mediated by Egypt envisions open borders. But Israel says it can't allow supplies in freely, for fear Hamas - a group committed to the destruction of the Jewish state - would hijack concrete and steel to build bunkers and rockets.
Instead, Israel is willing to allow in specific hardware consignments, in close coordination with international aid agencies.
"We want the accountability of the international community," said Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israeli military branch that deals with Palestinian civilians. "There can be different types of creative solutions."
Such an arrangement was in place for the Beit Lahiya sewage project, given emergency status after one of the lagoons overflowed in 2007, killing five people.
Still, completion of a pumping station and a 4-mile pipeline was delayed by 2 1/2 years, and now the pipeline has been damaged by Israeli air strikes, according to Naziq Rihan, a project engineer. Work on the crucial water treatment plant hasn't even begun.
Another monument to thwarted aid is a housing project, funded by the United Arab Emirates for Gazans made homeless in previous Israeli offensives. The work has stalled since the blockade.
"I think in 10 years, they still won't be finished," said security guard Nasser Abu Amouna, 27, who lost his home in an Israeli airstrike in 2007 and was in line for rehousing in the new project.