Agence France Presse (AFP)
February 26, 2009 - 1:00am

The Palestinian Authority said on Wednesday it will seek $2.8 billion to rebuild Gaza, as Israel threatened another military offensive if alleged arms smuggling into the Hamas-run enclave continues. "We have prepared a document on the basis of which donors will make their aid pledges. It foresees a total of $2.8 billion for all sectors," Palestinian Premier Salam Fayyad said at the headquarters of his Western-backed government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"This document was prepared by the Palestinian Authority with the participation of all concerned parties and contains, in addition to the required aid, mechanisms that will allow donors to start reconstruction."

More than 70 countries are expected at the March 2 meeting in Egypt, which has been mediating a consolidation of the Gaza truce after Hamas and Israel declared on January 18 their own ceasefires to end a 22-day war that killed over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Sporadic attacks have continued on both sides since and Israel has linked any truce and the lifting of its blockade on the impoverished Palestinian territory to the release of a soldier captured by militants in June 2006.

The abduction followed on the heels of a spate of arrests of elected Hamas parliamentarians fresh from an electoral victory over Fatah in early 2006.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will attend the Gaza conference, has meanwhile been pressing Israel to stop blocking aid to the besieged territory, an Israeli newspaper reported on Wednesday.

"Israel is not making enough efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza," the paper quoted US officials as telling their Israeli counterparts last week. "The US expects Israel to meet its commitments on this matter."

Clinton has relayed messages to Israel about the aid issue in the past week, and senior aides have made it clear the question would be central to her visit to Israel on Tuesday.

US Mideast envoy George Mitchell is expected to issue a strongly worded statement on the situation when he travels to Israel this week, Haaretz said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Ygal Palmor said he was unaware of any such messages and the prime minister's office said it would not comment "as long as there is no official US statement" on the issue.

Various UN, EU and human-rights officials have repeatedly slammed the blockade as "collective punishment of a civilian population," an act illegal under international law that the Fourth Geneva convention defines as a war crime.

Last week, influential US Senator John Kerry witnessed first-hand the siege measures imposed by Israel in blocking the delivery of supplies into Gaza, which is struggling to recover from Israel's devastating 22-day war.

While touring Gaza, Kerry learned that truckloads of pasta were prevented from entering the Palestinian enclave and was told by UN officials that Israel considers rice as humanitarian aid but not pasta, the newspaper said.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak eventually allowed the shipment into Gaza following an intervention by Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who heads the US Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Committee.

Israel insists it will not reopen its crossing points into Gaza until Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Palestinian fighters in June 2006.

The Gaza Strip has been under a tight Israeli blockade since Hamas won legislative polls in 2006. After the group took power by force and ousted their Fatah rivals, Israel further tightened the siege.

Humanitarian agencies have repeatedly called for improved access to the Gaza Strip, which the Jewish state has sealed off from all but scarce deliveries of international aid - denounced as woefully inadequate by humanitarian workers - since the takeover by Hamas.

Also on Wednesday, a Russian Foreign Ministry source was quoted as saying that ministers from the Middle East "Quartet" seeking to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may meet at a conference in Egypt next week.

"Such a possibility is currently being worked out, in which the ministers of the Quartet countries may meet on the sidelines of the international conference on rebuilding the Gaza economy," he said, quoted by RIA-Novosti news agency.


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