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A bitterlemons interview with Walid Salem, a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace and Development

A lot of money was pledged at the Sharm al-Sheikh conference for the reconstruction of Gaza. Do you think that this means reconstruction can now go ahead?

I see two problems when it comes to the reconstruction of Gaza. The first is raw materials. If Israeli restrictions preventing raw materials from entering Gaza continue, the money is of no use. So there either has to be a ceasefire agreement or an expansion of the Rafah crossing so it can process goods, not just people.

The second problem is that there should be some kind of guarantee from Israel that any new construction won’t be destroyed again. I don’t think Israel will make such a commitment unless it too contributes financially to reconstruction. Such a contribution would show that Israel is serious about not destroying new construction in Gaza.

The conference showed that there is financial will on the part of the international community. Is there also political will?

Salem: The financial support is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a good sign for Palestinians, but it can also become a tool to desensitize Palestinians to continued occupation, i.e., a price is paid to make the occupation bearable.

Giving money to Palestinians should be combined with pressure on Israel so that Israel is committed not to destroy again what is built in Gaza as well as to a firm ceasefire agreement. It was primarily Israel that violated the last one, after all.

bitterlemons: The US pledged $900 million but also said none of that money should fall into the hands of Hamas and reiterated the Quartet conditions for any dealings with a government that includes Hamas. Do you see any change in the US position?

Salem: The $900 million includes $600 million for the West Bank and $300 million for Gaza. Washington will pay this through the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. There is little new there.

The change I see in Washington, which I hear from both [ US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [Senator] John Kerry, is on Syria, through which I think the US wants to engage Hamas. This process has already begun, given that we see some flexibility in Hamas’ position in Cairo. [Hamas leader] Mahmoud Zahar, in Tehran three days ago, said Hamas would accept a technocrat government that would then prepare for new elections. I see the hand of Syria and even Iran in this.

But for this Syrian role to continue, Damascus will want a guarantee from the US that it will eventually be returned the Golan Heights. So this will determine whether or not Syria will continue trying to influence Hamas.

What do you make of reports that the US will only deal with a Palestinian government led by Salam Fayyad?

I don’t know how correct these reports are. The discussions in Cairo are not heading that way. Hamas will accept an independent but not Fayyad.

What did you make of Hilary Clinton’s visit? Did you see any positive signs?

There is a change in rhetoric, on Syria, for example. Also Washington does not appear as negative on the Palestinian dialogue as the last administration. However, Washington continues to speak of the Quartet "principles"–as they call them now, rather than conditions. So, while I see a change in American policy toward Syria, I see less change on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In the end, if Palestinians agree on a government that does not adhere to the Quartet "principles", the US will boycott it. Also, Washington will not pressure a Netanyahu government to move forward.

What may happen is that [Senator] George Mitchell will get the sides into one room and not let them leave until they come up with some agreement. But in the end, like in Northern Ireland, he will at most reach an agreement on conflict management.-


Published 9/Mar/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Mar 2009.

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