January 23, 2009

Reconstructing Gaza - the battle for hearts and minds

Damaged buildings in Gaza (click for larger view)Damaged buildings in Gaza (click for larger view)
my photo - January 19

The combat may be over in Gaza, but the war goes on. Now the battles are over the reconstruction projects that will repair the estimated $2 billion worth of damage to the infrastructure. As funds from wealthy Arab states - Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion and the other Gulf Arabs another $1 billion - become available, there is a coming struggle over who will administer the funds inside the Gaza Strip. The organization that controls the distribution of the money will garner important political clout and in essence emerge as the real winner of the war.

As you might imagine, both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) want to be the manager of the funds and overseer of the projects. Israel would prefer that the PA be in charge - they have a good working relationship with Mahmud 'Abbas (Abu Mazin) - whereas they refuse to even talk to Hamas, considered by Israel, the United States and the European Union, as a terrorist organization.

Israel does have a say in the reconstruction. Israel controls the crossings into Gaza except for the eight miles of the Gaza-Egypt border, the "Philadelphia Corridor." Most, if not all, of the aid will have to come through Israel - even if the Egyptian border crossings were opened, they cannot handle the volume of traffic that will be required to import the amount of building materials needed to reconstruct the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials have stated they want to make sure that Gaza is rebuilt, not Hamas's capabilities.

Another Israeli concern is aid from Iran, which of course will be handled on the ground controlled by Hamas. Hamas has already started to pay out Iranian-supplied compensation to Palestinians whose homes were destroyed in the Israeli attacks over the last three weeks. This is yet another lesson learned from Hizballah. Immediately after the passage of a United Nations resolution ending the conflict between Israel and Hizballah in 2006, Hizballah teams in southern Lebanon began handing out Iranian-supplied money to people whose homes were damaged or destroyed. Hizballah then went on to re-arm and consolidate its political power, eventually emerging as the major power broker in the country.

Hamas hopes to replicate Hizballah's success - turn a military defeat into a political victory. One way to do that is to control several billion dollars of aid. Administering aid also provides excellent cover for the covert acquisition of weapons to replace Hamas's depleted or destroyed stocks. Without gaining the position of aid administrators, the organization would appear to be just the defeated party in a war with Israel. If they are not involved in the solution, they will be blamed for all the damage and destruction.

For the Palestinian Authority, administering the reconstruction aid may be its last chance for relevance in the Gaza Strip. Since its violent expulsion from the Strip at the hands of Hamas in 2007, the PA has virtually no presence or influence in Gaza, or as many Israeli officials refer to it, "Hamastan." If the PA can be seen as the rescuers of Gaza, it has a chance to regain some of its former political power. It will be difficult - the PA is notoriously corrupt.

The coming fight between Hamas and the PA may rival their bloody fight in 2007 and the stakes are just as high.