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Control Of Gaza Subject Of Debate

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- As Palestinians begin thinking about how to rebuild the bombarded Gaza Strip, the biggest hurdle quickly became apparent: Who will be in charge?

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European countries, oil-rich Arab kingdoms and the United Nations have all pledged money or aid since Israel declared a cease-fire Sunday in the military offensive it launched Dec. 27. But none of the donors wants to deal with Hamas, the Islamist movement that still controls Gaza but is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated his government's stance Tuesday that it would block the delivery of reconstruction aid and building materials to Gaza if they benefit Hamas.

Israel's preferred partner is the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and dominated by his secular Fatah party. Although the Palestinian Authority governs in the West Bank, it was forcibly tossed out of Gaza by Hamas in June 2007.

Abbas's influence has waned since then, even within Fatah. Many Palestinians are angry that he didn't object more loudly to Israel's invasion of Gaza. Instead, the Palestinian Authority's security services effectively bottled up West Bank protests against Israel's actions.

"I don't know what he's thinking," said Qaddura Faris, a Fatah leader based in Ramallah. Abbas, he said, should have cut off negotiations with Israel and led protests in the West Bank against the war. "It seems he doesn't understand the Palestinian mentality."

The task of rebuilding Gaza became clearer Tuesday as the Israeli military withdrew most of its troops from the impoverished strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. Palestinian and U.N. surveyors estimated that more than 4,000 buildings were demolished during the fighting and that it would cost upward of $2 billion to repair the damage.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza City on Tuesday and compared the area to a disaster zone. "I have seen only a fraction of the destruction," he said at a news conference. "This is shocking and alarming."

Ban criticized Israel for using "excessive" force and rebuked Hamas for firing rockets from Gaza into civilian areas in southern Israel. But he also urged Hamas to mend fences with Fatah and give Palestinians a united voice.

"I appeal to Fatah, Hamas, to all Palestinian factions, to reunite within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian Authority," Ban said.

Meanwhile, Hamas organized rallies to celebrate what it portrayed as a triumph over Israel, merely by surviving 22 days of pounding by its enemy's vastly superior military force. In Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza City, several hundred people marched behind Hamas flags and bullhorns.

"For us, this was a victory," Mohammed Abu Awad, 24, a university student, told the Associated Press.


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