Israel to keep tight grip on Gaza reconstruction

(Adds Israeli official, paragraph 8, EU commissioner, paragraphs 14-15)

Adam Entous

JERUSALEM, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Israel intends to exert control over the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip following its 22-day offensive, and is seeking guarantees that no U.N. projects will benefit Hamas, officials said on Monday.

Israel, which declared a unilateral ceasefire on Sunday, retains full control over Gaza's commercial crossings, through which goods and other materials for rebuilding must pass.

Smuggler tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt, which were used by Hamas and many ordinary Palestinians to get around the Israeli-led blockade, were heavily bombed during the war and are, at least temporarily, out of commission.

That gives Israel enormous power to shape the recovery effort, which will be largely financed by the international community. Preliminary estimates put the damage at nearly $2 billion. Saudi Arabia said it would donate $1 billion.

Western diplomats, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Israel has asked the United Nations and other aid groups to provide a detailed list of goods, equipment and personnel that they want to bring into the Gaza Strip, both to meet immediate needs and for rebuilding.

Israel told the aid groups it would consider expanding the list of materials authorised to enter the Gaza Strip. Before the war, Israel blocked entry of most cement, steel and cash, saying Hamas used them for bunkers, rockets and militia salaries.


But Israel made clear it intended to manage the process closely by requiring project-by-project approval, the diplomats said. It has also asked for "guarantees" from the U.N. and other agencies that their projects will not benefit Hamas, an Islamist group viewed as terrorist by Israel and the West.

An Israeli official said U.N. agencies would be required to monitor "each and every dollar they spend" to make sure it goes directly to the local contractors doing the work. The message, he said, was "don't allow Hamas to take credit for anything".

U.N. officials declined to comment on Israel's request. As a policy, the world body does not talk directly to Hamas except at the working level to facilitate its aid activities in Gaza.

Hamas won a Palestinian election in 2006 but it has been shunned by Western powers over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace agreements.

The group, which receives support from Iran and sympathisers in the Arab world, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after routing secular Fatah forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States wants Abbas's Palestinian Authority to take the lead in drawing up and implementing any reconstruction plans for Gaza, thereby giving it a foothold in Hamas's stronghold and denying the Islamist group credit for rebuilding.

But diplomats said Hamas sees itself as the legitimate authority in Gaza and would resist the return of the Authority.

The European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, made clear on Monday that reconstruction aid for Gaza would be not be available to its Hamas government, unless Hamas gave up the violence that has led the West to boycott it.

While promising rapid EU aid to meet the pressing needs of Gaza's population, she criticised Hamas's rocket fire against Israel and told reporters in Jerusalem: "For reconstruction ... you need an interlocutor. Is there a reconciliation process?"

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has appointed Isaac Herzog, the welfare minister, to coordinate recovery efforts with international bodies.

Israel has said it could sharply increase the flow of food and medicine to Gaza if the ceasefire holds, but it has ruled out fully lifting the blockade until Hamas and its allies release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in 2006. (Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Giles Elgood)