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Hillary Clinton To Attend Conference On Gaza Aid

This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi, reporting from Sharm el-Sheikh.


Foreign ministers and international aid groups will converge in the Egyptian summer resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday in a bid to reconstruct the Gaza Strip, devastated a month ago by three weeks of non-stop onslaught by Israeli forces. Facing the reconstruction efforts are tricky questions about how to devise a mechanism for funneling the necessary cash.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who is arriving in this Red Sea resort on her first visit to the Middle East since joining the Obama administration — has said the United States would offer more than $900 million through the United Nations or the Palestinian Authority.

[Washington has no direct contact with Hamas, a group which remains on the State Department's list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.]

The quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — are expected to meet on the sidelines of the conference to try to work on a strategy to channel the money to the battered territory's 1.5 million people.

About 75 countries are participating in Monday's conference. Most of them – especially the Arab nations, the EU and other industrial countries – will be represented on the Foreign Ministerial level.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be among those attending the opening session.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will also be present. Neither Hamas nor Israel have been invited.

Clinton, who has a full schedule of non-stop meetings with Arab and foreign officials on the sidelines of the conference, is expected to later visit Israel and the West Bank, a public demonstration of the Obama administration's promise to make Arab-Israeli peacemaking a foreign policy priority.

The U.S. and the West almost unanimously say they would deal with the Palestinian authority, not Hamas — which despite the ferocity of the assault against it is still the de facto ruler in Gaza — and so the approach taken will not be simple, despite the milestone of seeming solidarity with the Palestinian people which the one-day conference represents.

At the first economic summit in Kuwait last month Arab leaders agreed in principle to send financial assistance, but failed to reach an agreement on how to carry out the process.

Furthermore, international donors and Israel intend to exert control over any reconstruction plan, seeking guarantees that no projects would benefit the Islamist militant group.

In a telephone conversation from Damascus where he is in exile, Hamas's number two leader Mousa Abu Marzouk told CBS News that the world should acknowledge his group was a "solid fact on the ground," saying any financial aid for Gaza should go through the "clean hands" of Hamas.

Israel's aerial and seaborne military campaign against the Gaza "sliver" (as it is dubbed by the Palestinians) began December 27 and claimed almost 1,400 Palestinian lives. More than 4,000 homes were reduced to rubble while approximately 14,000 other buildings were damaged. Preliminary estimates put the damage in the 140-square-mile coastal strip at nearly $2 billion.

Western diplomats told CBS News, on condition their names would not be used for the sensitivity of the issue, that some donors may also see little point in pledging money without a guarantee that the whole conflict is over.

"For aid to come through and crossings to open to allow construction materials into the coastal territory, rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah must first reconcile, if they really want to see the gathering a success," says one Western delegate.

Hamas and the Western-backed Fatah movement of President Abbas have been bitterly divided since the Islamists seized Gaza in free elections in June 2007, leaving Abbas' power base limited to the West Bank.

Both factions agreed last week after lengthy talks in Egypt to set up five committees to deal with the issues of an interim government, presidential and legislative elections, restructuring security services and merging Hamas into the Fatah-run Palestine Liberation Organization.

Though little of substance emerged, for both factions to sit and talk was seen as an advance in the process.

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