Gaza war recovery plans face huge obstacles

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - International aid plans for post-war Gaza call for rushing in food and medicine and restoring water and power, but a wholesale reconstruction of the enclave is a long way off, Western diplomats said on Saturday.

Preliminary estimates of the cost of rebuilding from Israel’s devastating military offensive top $1.6 billion, according to the diplomats. But they said a full accounting of the damage had yet to begin and would take weeks to complete.

Representatives of the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank held an emergency meeting in Jerusalem on Saturday to prepare an initial response to Israel’s unilateral ceasefire, which starts at 2 a.m. (0000 GMT) on Sunday.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised Israel would be “mindful of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and will continue to do our best to facilitate humanitarian solutions on the ground in cooperation with international humanitarian bodies.”

But without an accord with Hamas on who will control Palestinian border crossings, diplomats feared Israel would limit the inflow of goods, hampering recovery work and creating more hardship for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

Food, cooking gas, fuel, electricity and running water are scarce, and Israel’s bombing of smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt will only increase Palestinian dependence on the limited supplies the Jewish state and Egypt let in.

At least 1,203 Palestinians have been killed, including 410 children, and 5,300 wounded, since the Israeli offensive began on December 27, Hamas health officials said. About 45,000 Gazans fleeing battle zones are sheltering in U.N.-run schools.

The first stage of the international emergency response will center on bringing medical and humanitarian supplies through Israeli and Egyptian border crossings.

Another priority will be restoring electricity, water and sanitation services to pre-conflict levels, diplomats said.

With nearly all sewage and water pumps out of action due to fuel and power shortages, health officials fear an outbreak of waterborne diseases unless those systems are quickly restored.

Donors’ conferences are already in the works, including one announced on Saturday by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Diplomats said the conference in Egypt would take place in February and include the Quartet of Middle East mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, will play a central role in the reconstruction effort, restoring, Washington hopes, some of its influence in Hamas’s stronghold.

But Iranian-backed Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian election and seized control of Gaza 18 months later, still sees itself as the legitimate authority and wants to spearhead reconstruction after the fighting ends.

“It’s going to be a very complicated issue,” a senior Western diplomat said of the reconstruction, pointing to the problems of Palestinian infighting and corruption.

Rebuilding will also require Israel to keep border crossings with Gaza open to enormous amounts of aid and building supplies like steel and cement, as well as cash to pay local contractors. Israel has long limited such imports, arguing that they can be used by Hamas to build rockets, bunkers and smuggling tunnels.

An official involved in coordinating with the Israeli army said it was “premature” to focus on long-term reconstruction because it was unclear who would be in charge of Gaza’s crossings after Israel leaves.

If Abbas’s Authority controls the passages on the Palestinian side, reconstruction efforts would still be difficult but might have a chance, the diplomat said.

But if Hamas tries to assert control there, Israel would most likely clamp down, making reconstruction impossible.

According to a partial estimate by the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, more than 20,000 residential buildings have been damaged in Israeli air, sea and ground attacks, and some 4,000 totally destroyed.

Since the fighting began, 13 Israelis have been killed -- 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rockets.

Editing by Dominic Evans