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Attempts to Undermine Hamas Are Killing Gaza

The U.S. and the international community are poised to continue politically-charged policies that will impede progress.

WASHINGTON, Feb 9 - Despite a desperate need to rebuild the Gaza Strip, viewed by many as a key ingredient to reuniting the Palestinian territories and building a two-state peace deal with Israel, it appears that the U.S. and the international community are poised to continue old, politically charged policies that will impede progress.

 Even before Israel's three-week war on the Gaza Strip, some 80 percent of the besieged territory's 1.5 million Palestinian residents reportedly depended on aid to meet their basic needs.

After the massive air, land and sea assaults of late December and January, those status quo demands have been exacerbated by the urgency of more humanitarian aid coupled with a need to rebuild the devastated Strip.

But it is not clear how much help -- especially help from the U.S. -- will be able to make its way into the tightly sealed, 360-square-kilometer parcel of land or to its war- and poverty-ravaged population, resulting in what one analyst said would be severely slowed reconstruction.

Gaza's borders and coastlines are controlled by Israel and Egypt, which have enforced a near total blockade for 18 months since the militant group Hamas seized power there, effectively cleaving Palestinian polity, economy and society in two.

Since then, Israel, the U.S. and much of the international community have pursued a policy of isolating Hamas and building up the group's rival, Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, but holds no sway in Gaza.

Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who notably pledged support after a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, led the international community in calls to raise money and bring relief to Gazans and their badly damaged enclave.

But rebuilding after attacks that leveled targets as widely varied as apartment buildings, roads, hospitals, universities, water-treatment facilities and civilian business infrastructure will likely be bogged down in a politicized process designed to marginalize Hamas and strengthen Fatah's PA.

"This is part of the broader political struggle between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine," said the Brookings Institution's Tamara Cofman Wittes, an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East and the peace process.

Indeed, for the international community, rebuilding those parts of Gaza holds an opportunity to show its goodwill towards Palestinians. But that potential, particularly for Washington, is mired in doubt because of restrictions and opposition to Hamas.

However, the international community at-large will also likely have difficulties working on Gaza reconstruction.

After Hamas's takeover of the Strip in June 2007, the Quartet, made up of Russia, the U.S., the U.N. and the European Union (EU), offered a deal that should Hamas accept three conditions -- recognition of Israel, respect for previous peace accords, and renunciation of violence -- aid would continue to flow. No such deal came, and with the fall of a national unity effort by the Palestinians, aid was funneled solely through the PA.

It appears now that the U.S. will not be directly involved in aid programs to Gaza -- especially reconstruction -- and that the new administration of President Barack Obama will continue the George W. Bush policy of isolating and starving Hamas. That tack is seen by some as collective punishment of Gazans and a major impediment to development there.

In terms of the peace process, the challenge is especially daunting because both a robust U.S. role and Palestinian unity are viewed as essential to progress.

"The American priority today is restoring American credibility. The point is restoring the credibility that what the U.S. does actually has an impact," said Robert Malley, a former high-level Mideast adviser to Pres. Bill Clinton, now with the International Crisis Group (ICG).

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