The National (Editorial)
March 3, 2009 - 1:00am

Another summit in Sharm el Sheikh to deal with the fallout of another violent episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is one way to understand yesterday’s meeting between heads of state, foreign ministers and officials at the Egyptian resort. But given the magnitude of the human suffering in Gaza, this cannot be just another meeting.

The 22-day Israeli attack on Gaza left utter devastation. On top of the enormous death toll of 1,300 Palestinians, it has transformed the small enclave, already subject to an uncompromising Israeli blockade, into a place of despair. The UN Development Programme estimates that nearly 14,000 homes, 219 factories and 240 schools have been destroyed or significantly damaged. The existing infrastructure has been reduced to rumble. Unemployment tops 40 per cent and 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Israeli protests could not prevent the French President Nicolas Sarkozy from describing it the way it is: Gaza has been deliberately turned into the largest open-air prison on earth.

Under these conditions, there is no such thing as normal for the Gazan population, held hostage to Hamas’s politicking and, more importantly, to Israel’s inexcusable delusions. Sharm el Sheikh, however, approached the issue through its least controversial perspective – the need to allay suffering – in the hope that this could lead to a more ambitious opening for peace.

Egypt, which facilitates the mediation between Israel and Hamas and between the Palestinian sides, acted as the master of ceremonies and the Gulf states distinguished themselves by committing $1.64bn toward Gaza’s recovery. This was the new US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s first foray into peace diplomacy and she pledged massive US aid: $300mn to Gaza and another $600mn to the weakened Palestinian Authority. More importantly, she reiterated Barack Obama’s commitment to peace when she said that the US would seek “a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours and we will pursue it on many fronts”.

While the fact that Gaza’s urgent needs are drawing such attention should be praised, the issue of how the aid will be delivered has emerged as the real sticking point. The international community is still reluctant to channel assistance through Hamas’s social arm for fear that this would shore up its influence. But bypassing Hamas is next to impossible and the beleaguered Palestinian Authority is hardly an alternative.

So “creative” assistance delivery is being urged. Several NGOs have been identified as possible conduits, but the magnitude of the effort dwarfs their capacity. As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon admitted, Palestinian reconciliation is the only solution. Fatah and Hamas are hammering out their differences in Cairo, but the gap between them is still wide. The outcome of the truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas held under Egyptian auspices is also essential. After all, why rebuild if the two parties are set on fighting again? The two sides, conspicuously absent from the Sharm el Sheikh deliberations, are sadly stuck in calculations in which the Palestinian population’s misery seems a nuisance.

The display of goodwill in Sharm el Sheikh does not yet meet the challenge but is a step in the right direction. Now, the world, and more importantly the Gazans, await strong-armed diplomacy for peace.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017