Ziad Asali
The Daily Star
February 27, 2009 - 1:00am

In the wake of the devastating war in Gaza, the immediate challenge facing the United States, its Arab allies, and the international community, is providing essential aid and reconstruction to the people of Gaza without bolstering Hamas.

Hamas launched reckless and provocative rocket attacks against Israel. But Gazans, already suffering under siege, are not Hamas, they are not combatants, and should not be punished.

As a human being, and as a physician, I was horrified by the tragedy that has befallen the people of Gaza by Israel's disproportionate use of force. After an estimated 1,400 deaths and 5,400 injuries, 80 percent of surviving Gazans now depend on food aid, and 51,000 need shelter. Their suffering must immediately stop.

The war extracted a very heavy human and political toll, but in the short run the status quo ante remains fundamentally unchanged. Gaza lies in ruins, but Hamas still controls Gaza, the responsible policies and credibility of the Palestinian Authority and other Arab allies of the US have been undermined, and the cause of peace continues to erode.

In order to begin to address this unacceptable situation, we must first properly manage humanitarian relief and reconstruction. We must learn the lessons of 2006 in Lebanon, where Hizbullah was able to gain enormous credit and credibility by seizing control of the postwar reconstruction process.

Immediate humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza should proceed unimpeded and without politicization, to deliver food, shelter, medical, fuel, and educational supplies, as well as power and sanitation. It should be provided and expanded through existing agencies, including UNRWA and international NGOs. Israel must allow this to happen. If Hamas again attempts to interfere, it risks the suspension of aid.

Opening the border crossings under Palestinian Authority (PA) control with international monitoring, and implementing the Access and Movement Agreement of 2005, are essential for both aid, and for reconstruction.

Reconstruction however, takes time. It requires a new international mechanism that can ensure entry of construction materials into Gaza, secure from political interference. Any party blocking the reconstruction process must publicly bear the blame.

This mechanism should be structured to quickly grant contracts, vet recipients, and have security and logistical components. This must be coordinated by the new US Special Envoy to the Middle East and composed of the Quartet, the PA and Egypt, which already plays an indispensable role.

Private reconstruction should be managed through direct bank transfers from the PA to beneficiaries, as proposed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, which will benefit 21,000 property owners at a cost of $600-800 million. Larger projects can be undertaken by international agencies with oversight by the new multilateral mechanism.

The Palestinian partner for reconstruction can only be the PA, under President Mahmoud Abbas. A non-partisan Palestinian "national accord" government, made up of people approved by but not members of either party, could help. But it must meet the Quartet conditions, exert security control, and have the specific mandate of overseeing reconstruction, and preparing for elections.

However, unless tangible progress is made on advancing Palestinian statehood and quality of life through negotiations, and unless the PA and Fatah implement serious and genuine reform, the PA will continue to lose ground and its policy of negotiations will be discredited to the benefit of extremists. Permanent-status negotiations must continue, but cannot be sustained without Israel expanding the space of freedom in Palestinian cities by redeployment of its forces, and by delivering improvements in access and mobility to open up economic opportunities.

Settlements entrench the occupation and are the most pressing political and logistical impediment to peace. This is the time to deliver on an immediate settlement freeze, and this is where US leadership must be asserted to preserve the credibility of the two-state solution.

US assistance must be intensified to help the PA further develop the new professional security system, rebuilt with the help of Lt. General Keith Dayton, which has proven its effectiveness under difficult circumstances; develop the fledgling economy unimpeded by unreasonable restrictions; and pursue good governance reform, transparency and the rule of law.

There is no military solution to this conflict, and until it is resolved through two states - a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestine freed from occupation - further violence is inevitable.

Without progress, anything rebuilt will be destroyed. Our own actions can either foster hope or feed hate. A devastated Gaza, a stagnant West Bank, and a moribund peace process would only benefit extremism. The losers will then be the Palestinians, Israel, the cause of peace, and, most importantly, the American national interest.

Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. He testified before the

Congress on Gaza on February 12, 2008. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.


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