Sharm el Sheikh, EGYPT -- A resounding and unanimous international message of support was sounded in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh March 2 with the participation of world leaders. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UN Secretary General and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were joined with foreign ministers as well as representatives of regional and international organizations, and foundations.
Ironically two key groups were absent from the meeting: Israel and Hamas.
The international nature of the conference was not restricted to the many nationalities and languages present but was evident in many of the terminologies applied. The Egyptian- Norwegian co-sponsorship of the event and UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon's most recent personal experiences illustrated the international interest. France's president said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a regional one but an international conflict. The post World War II Marshall Plan was repeated by a number of European speakers as an example of the international community's response to a region after war. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who heads the G8 meeting, spoke about putting Palestine and the Palestinian economy on the agenda of the next G8 meeting as well as the G14 meeting. He offered his dream of setting up an international Palestinian airport, building hotels and bringing millions of tourists, especially Christian pilgrims, to Palestine. Russian foreign Minister Lavarof reminded the audience that an international conference will be held in 2009 in Moscow and that Palestinians have welcomed the Russian effort.
The Gaza reconstruction conference was the first meeting (in her new capacity) of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which meant that she was an even more in demand by visiting delegations as well as local and international press. What was on everyone's mind was how the new secretary of state will deal with some of the larger issues that are of concern to the region and specifically how she will deal with Hamas as well as how much she will press Israel.
Judging by her public statements, she clearly was in support of an energetic policy that will bring about a comprehensive peace. She singled out the individuality of Palestinians when she declared that every one of them deserves a normal life. The issue of Hamas is still an untouchable subject, but some holes appeared in the US wall of rejection.
Sharm el Sheikh was also the first chance that the Obama administration had to reconnect with fellow members of the Quartet. The EU, UN, US and Russian group was set up under George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton's meeting referenced Washington's support for the four party group. George Mitchell, the special US envoy for peace in the Middle East, opened the closed meeting with a summary of the critical humanitarian situation. A senior state department source said that Mitchell stressed the need for consolidating the ceasefire in Gaza and the need to support Palestinian unity in the context of the two state solution. Mitchell will be setting up office and staffing it in Jerusalem in order to follow up on the envoy's peace efforts.
Former British Prime Minister France's President said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a regional one but an international conflict. The post world war II Marshall Plan was repeated by a number of European speakers as an example of the international community's response to a region after war.
But while the money raised for Gaza has been impressive, it is a long way before all this money (even if it is actually delivered) will reach the people of Gaza. The funds pledged to Gaza reconstruction comes with a number of conditions among them the one articulated by Hillary Clinton. The US secretary of state made it clear that the money earmarked for Gaza reconstruction must not get into the hands of Hamas. Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad was quick to note that the problem lies squarely with the Israelis. "We have created acceptable mechanism for channeling the money into Gaza, all we need is for the Israelis to give us access."
Fayyad complained that it would be hard to reconstruct and rebuild if, for example, you are not allowed to bring cement into Gaza. The Palestinian prime minister wants the Israelis to radically reverse their policies. He said at the end of the conference that what the Israelis do now is to limit what is allowed into Gaza to a handful of things. What should happen is that all civilian needs should be allowed into Gaza, he said.
For the people of Gaza, however, much of the discussions in the Sharm el Sheikh conference is nothing more than hot air. They will need to see evidence of change on the ground before they can smile again. Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere were not only looking for promises and pledges of money. They have been waiting for political change that can guarantee that what will be rebuilt after the destruction will stay standing and will not be destroyed again.
Otherwise in a year of two the international community will be asked to come together once again and make yet another round of financial pledges for another reconstruction.