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Abbas ignores Hamas in rebuilding

THE Palestinian president asked international donors at a conference yesterday to funnel millions of dollars through his government to rebuild the devastated Gaza Strip, seeking to shore up his position against the rival Hamas movement, which controls the tiny territory.

The conference gathered the presidents of Egypt and France, the United Nations chief and top diplomats from 45 nations ?? including Hillary Clinton in her first Middle East trip as United States secretary of state ?? to show international support for reconstruction after Israel's crippling offensive against Hamas.

The gathering aims to raise at least US$2.8 billion from 80 donor nations and international organizations. Donor nations hope that a show of cash will boost chances for resuming the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

But control of the funds is a key question. The international community refuses to negotiate with Gaza's militant Hamas rulers. Hamas was not invited to the conference in this Red Sea resort.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's government, based in the West Bank, has little presence in the Gaza strip after being driven out by the Hamas movement in 2007.

In a significant move, Arab Gulf nations - including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait - pledged US$1.6 billion, but bypassed both Hamas and Abbas. The Gulf nations said in a statement they would set up a joint office in Gaza to carry out reconstruction on their own, deciding on projects and implementing them.

With the move, Gulf countries may be trying to signal to Hamas that Gulf nations are not favoring Abbas, hoping to encourage the militant group to moderate and reconcile with his Palestinian authority.

Clinton was bringing a US pledge of about US$300 million in humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip, as well as US$600 million in assistance to Abbas' Palestinian Authority.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned the gathering that the donors' pledges should not be treated as "spoils of war" - a message to rival Palestinian factions not to squabble over the funds.

He also said reconstruction will depend on reaching long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, which Egypt is trying to mediate, and the opening up of Gaza's border crossings, which have been largely closed since Hamas took over the territory.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged donors to give, telling the conference he had visited Gaza and seen with his "own eyes the agony of the people" there.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said "responsible Palestinians" should seek peace with Israel and said a prisoner exchange by Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, held by Gaza militants since June 2006, "is a priority." Israel has demanded Schalit's release as part of any truce deal.


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