Palestinian aid conference aims to bolster Abbas

PARIS (Reuters) – France hosts an international aid conference on Monday to raise funds for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas Islamists as he negotiates peace with Israel.

The one-day meeting is the financial sequel to last month’s U.S.-sponsored Annapolis conference at which formal peace talks were launched with a view to brokering a deal on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.

But with Israeli checkpoints stifling economic development in the West Bank and Abbas’s Fatah locked in a power struggle with Hamas, which took Gaza by force in June, there are doubts about how effective the donors’ aid will be.

“They are trying to reinforce Mahmoud Abbas, but they are in a real bind,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

“There is a power struggle between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas and it is absolutely not settled. The international community can do all it wants, it changes nothing,” he added.

Hamas won a parliamentary election in January 2006, prompting the West to impose economic sanctions that were only lifted when Abbas sacked the Hamas-led government after Hamas took control of Gaza.

While the conference will focus on plans to boost the Palestinian economy, envoys from dozens of countries will discuss the contentious issue of security, which could become the focus of attention.

“We are rather in a positive dynamic, with above all the idea of indeed building the foundations of a Palestinian state,” a French diplomat told reporters ahead of the meeting, dubbed the “International donors’ conference for the Palestinian state”.

France has invited the foreign ministers of 69 countries to attend — the states that were at Annapolis, as well as all of the European Union and key political and economic players.

CHECKPOINTS

The Palestinian Authority will ask donors for around $5.6 billion over three years, to be used for budgetary support and development in the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza.

“This conference is clearly part of a political process and we also want to support this political process,” a second diplomat told reporters at a pre-conference briefing.

Regional powers Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the guests, as are Russia, India and China. The United States will be represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will also attend.

Donor nations have been poring over a reform program drawn up by the Palestinian Authority aimed at boosting the Palestinian economy and includes plans to cut the public deficit to 16 or 17 percent of gross domestic product from 27 or 28 percent currently, one diplomat said.

But the World Bank, which will also attend the meeting, said on Thursday that such plans would not be enough to revive the economy if Israel did not lift trade and travel restrictions.

Israel has so far balked at removing its hundreds of checkpoints that criss-cross the occupied West Bank, citing security concerns. It has tightened its military and economic cordon around the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized control.

Asked whether Israel was prepared to lift the checkpoints, the first diplomat said: “Israel is not alone in saying ‘Yes, we don’t rule it out, it is possible, but at the same time that requires that the security conditions improve’.”

There will be some pressure on donor countries to make their aid conditional on Israel lifting its checkpoints. So far only Britain had done so for part of its aid, the diplomat said.

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