February 23, 2009 / 6:43 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. plans "substantial" pledge at Gaza meeting

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to announce a “substantial” pledge of U.S. aid for Gaza and the Palestinian Authority at a donors’ meeting in Egypt next week, a State Department official said on Monday.

A Palestinian walks past a smuggling tunnel destroyed after an Israeli air strike near the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip, February 16, 2009. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the U.S. Congress still must approve the money and a final figure had not been set, but it could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The United States will announce a substantial pledge of humanitarian assistance and support for the Palestinian Authority,” said the official.

The March 2 donors conference in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort aims to raise humanitarian and rebuilding funds for Gaza after Israel’s invasion at the end of last year, which killed 1,300 Palestinians.

Preliminary estimates put the damage in Hamas-run Gaza after Israel’s offensive at nearly $2 billion (1.4 billion pounds).

Clinton’s bid to get “substantial” funds could face an uphill battle in Congress where requests for Gaza will likely meet resistance as Hamas continues to rule there and the U.S. focus is on its own souring economy.

In December, the former Bush administration said it would give $85 million to the U.N. agency giving aid to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Hamas is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and money must be channelled through U.N. bodies or the Palestinian Authority run by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States wants Abbas’ PA to play a central role in the reconstruction effort in Gaza, hoping this will increase its influence in the Hamas stronghold. Washington is also putting pressure on other donors to bolster the Palestinian Authority.

“We call on donor countries to focus their pledges to meet the Palestinian Authority’s priorities, including budget support, and on projects that can be funded through the Palestinian Authority and other existing, trusted mechanisms,” said the State Department official.

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 Egyptian conference where they will work on strategy on Gaza, U.S. officials said.

“We will also emphasise the importance of laying the conditions for successful negotiations towards the two-state solution and an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the State Department official said of discussions in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egypt will be Clinton’s first stop on a trip expected to include Israel and the occupied West Bank — a public demonstration of the Obama administration’s promise to make Arab-Israeli peacemaking a foreign policy priority.

The State Department has not formally announced her other stops in the region but Israeli officials said Clinton was expected there on March 3 after the Egyptian conference.

Clinton’s special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, is set to visit there this week in a bid to revive stalled Palestinian statehood talks complicated both by Hamas and political uncertainty in Israel after the election last week.

Editing by Vicki Allen

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