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U.N. makes $613-million appeal for Gaza

The United Nations issued a worldwide appeal Thursday for $613 million to help Palestinians recover from Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip.

But U.N. and Palestinian officials warned that the effort would fall short unless Israel and Egypt ended their blockade and allowed construction material, heavy equipment and parts to enter the enclave.

Israel and Egypt have kept Gaza’s borders tightly controlled or closed since Hamas, a militant Islamic group, seized power in the territory in June 2007. Both countries are resisting international pressure to ease the restrictions after Israel’s 22-day offensive aimed at halting rocket attacks into its territory. Nearly 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in the offensive and thousands of homes and other buildings were destroyed, with damage estimated at $2 billion.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the call for donations at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Help is indeed needed urgently,” he said, to meet critical needs for food, clean water, shelter, medicine and restoration of basic services.

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President Obama’s Middle East envoy, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, said during a visit to the West Bank on Thursday that ending the blockade would also help shore up a cease-fire that took effect early last week.

For a third straight day, sporadic violence breached the calm in Gaza. Palestinian medical officials said an Israeli airstrike wounded 17 civilians, including 10 schoolchildren and a pregnant woman in the town of Khan Yunis. The Israeli military said the attack was aimed at a Hamas militant on a motorcycle, who was also wounded.

Israeli warplanes bombed Palestinian smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt, and militants fired at least two rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Mitchell spoke to reporters after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, a secular rival of Hamas. The envoy said he wanted Gaza’s borders opened on the basis of a 2005 agreement that put Abbas’ forces in control of the main Egypt-Gaza passage, with European monitors deployed to prevent arms smuggling.

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The U.S.-brokered accord collapsed in 2007 when Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted Abbas’ forces from Gaza and the Europeans left.

Ahmed Yousef, a senior political advisor to the Hamas government, said in an interview that Hamas had no objection to allowing Abbas’ forces and the Europeans to return to the border posts in Gaza. But he said the agreement must be revised to make Hamas a partner.

Yousef said Hamas favored joint control of the border as part of a wider reconciliation between the bitterly divided Palestinian factions. He said he thought such a reconciliation was possible.

In an interview with Al Jazeera television Thursday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said reconciliation was now the group’s “main aim.” He also said he hoped that ties between the United States and the Muslim world would rebound after suffering during the Bush administration.

“I think it is not in America’s interest to stay in conflict with the Arab and Muslim worlds, considering its interests in the region,” he said. “We hope that the new American president revises all the policies of his predecessor.”

It was not clear where Haniyeh gave the interview. He has been in hiding since before Israel began its attack on Gaza last month.

The United States, along with Israel, many Western countries and some Arab states, has been working to isolate Hamas. They have insisted that Abbas’ Palestinian Authority and international aid groups control any funds for Gaza, to prevent Hamas from getting credit for rebuilding.

Haniyeh addressed that issue in a conciliatory statement this week, saying the Hamas government would not insist on monopolizing reconstruction funds. Yousef said Thursday that Hamas favored an Arab League proposal to set up an independent body to audit reconstruction funds.

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But major rebuilding will be impossible, officials in Gaza say, until Israel and Egypt fully open their borders. Israel, which says it is worried about the possible military use of some building materials, allows only limited shipments of humanitarian aid, fuel and consumer goods into Gaza.

Hamas advisor Yousef said that Egypt was reluctant to relax its border controls until Hamas and its Palestinian rivals agree on a power-sharing arrangement. And Israel is insisting on the release of an Israeli soldier Hamas has held for 2 1/2 years.

Israel’s infrastructure minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said Hamas must decide whether to meet Israel’s conditions or risk being blamed for keeping much of Gaza in ruins.

“To start construction works, you need cement, pipes, all sorts of construction materials,” he told Israel Radio. “If Hamas leaders want to leave this area in the state that it’s in right now, they will have to answer to the residents.”

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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