Beyond the pledge
Can Israel be prevented from destroying anything that is rebuilt in Gaza? Assem El-Kersh speaks with European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner about the implications of the Sharm El-Sheikh donors conference
What message has the Sharm El-Sheikh International Conference for the Reconstruction of Gaza sent?
It is certainly a message of hope, that we won't let the Palestinians down. The European Commission has always been on the side of the Palestinians. We have been the biggest donor so far. The 440 million euros we are pledging here is for all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Some will go to UNRWA, some to other humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross. A great deal will be channelled through our own financial mechanisms, directly reaching Gazans. There is cash for the poorest of the poor. Distribution has been working very well in terms of control and monitoring.
Both Israel and Hamas will be asked to make changes before reconstruction can take place. What are the odds on their agreeing?
We are not wearing rose-tinted glasses. We know the situation is not an easy one. First it is necessary that the new government in Israel be formed and that it return to a peace process that results in actual peace-making. On the other side we want to see the Palestinians together in a national unity government, a government of reconciliation that will also pursue peace. If the Palestinians want a state they have to work for that state. That is what we are hoping for as part of the international Quartet.
Hamas and Israel did not take part in this gathering. How do you expect them to respond?
I think Hamas has to understand, as does Fatah, that no one group can go it alone and achieve a state and peace. We cannot continue with this spiral of destruction. European citizens are tired. Europe cannot fund long-term reconstruction before a sustainable ceasefire or before we see a real peace process in place. What we have pledged here is to help allow for early recovery.
Are there any guarantees that Israel will not destroy yet again whatever is rebuilt with money pledged at this conference?
We have, together with the Americans, a degree of leverage. The important thing is that the international community work together. The Americans, the Russians, the United Nations, must all pull together.
The Americans have always had the greatest leverage with the Israelis. It is important, then, not only that the new administration immediately appointed a special envoy to the Middle East, Senator George Mitchell, but that US Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton went herself to Israel to have very clear talks there. We know there are huge challenges ahead and we know we must be patient.
Are the pledges conditional on changes on the ground?
The pledges are for humanitarian relief and early recovery. In order to move towards long-term reconstruction we will require changes on the ground.
Then the big question is who is going to oversee the operation?
We are not there yet. With early recovery we can go with our own mechanism but in terms of reconstruction we will have to wait and see. We want a functional, national unity government behind President Mahmoud Abbas. That may emerge in a year's time when there will have to be an election. The election will determine the next stage of Palestinian government.
What do you think Hamas should do to be a part in the reconstruction process?
Hamas must state clearly that it recognises Israel, that it wants peace and renounces violence. If you uphold violence how can you then negotiate at the same time?
And in return what will Israel have to do?
Israel should seriously engage in the pursuit of peace. We know more or less what the parameters are. A little bit more here or there is what must be negotiated. It is important that the peace process be comprehensive. We must move ahead on all tracks between Israel and both of Syria and Lebanon.
How far were the pledges made in 2007, at the Paris donors meeting, fulfilled?
I can't speak for other countries but our pledge has been completely met from collective EU funds. 2008 was totally paid, also 2009. Next year has to be accounted for. Ten million euros have been given for humanitarian relief and another 60 million will follow soon. UNRWA will receive 67 million. We are already working because we can't let people down. When we see hungry people we help.
How do you ensure transparency when it comes to how donations are spent?
We have been working for a long time with [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad. Initially funds were distributed under the Temporary International Mechanism. That has now been replaced by a new mechanism that guarantees distribution through a single PA treasury account that is fully monitored. I am standing before the European parliament and every cent has to be well spent. We are very careful about what we are doing and we have seen that it has worked out well.
What steps have been taken to end Israel's ban on allowing materials into Gaza?
We have pressed very hard for Israel to open the crossings. The European Union, together with the Czech president, have sent two letters to the Israelis to press them. We are not yet completely there, I must confess.
Have you received a response?
We did but it was not entirely satisfactory. It says more or less everything has been done, or nearly everything. What we want is for Israel to not only open up the crossings but also extend the list of goods [allowed in Gaza].
You have called for an unconditional opening of the crossings. How can this be achieved?
It could be done by the European Union going back to Rafah. We have said we are prepared and could return within 48 hours. But at the same time smuggling must cease. Israel could open the crossings first for humanitarian goods and later for commercial items. Then people in Gaza could restart small businesses. With trade comes income which supports families. But the EU cannot substitute for the parties to the conflict. We can press and push, that is all.
What should happen next?
I think we had a very good meeting of the Quartet [here in Sharm El-Sheikh]. Now we will have to wait a little bit for the Israeli government to be in place. Hopefully the talks Egypt is holding will lead to reconciliation. We need the two interlocutors and they are not there yet.