RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian unity government will hold its first Cabinet meeting in Gaza this week, a key step toward taking charge of reconstruction efforts in the war-battered territory, a senior official said Monday.
The Cabinet will convene Thursday, said Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa, three days before an international pledging conference where the Palestinian government will seek $4 billion in aid for Gaza, hit hard in a 50-day war this summer between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Donor countries view the unity government of independent experts, led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as key to any reconstruction plans. Hamas, which is shunned as a terrorist group by the international community, has governed Gaza for the past seven years.
The purpose of the Gaza meeting is to "see the situation on the ground and to send a message to the donors' conference that the government is ready to start reconstruction soon," Mustafa told The Associated Press.
Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, prompting a border closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, enforced to varying degrees over the past seven years. After Egypt tightened the closure last year and stepped up its destruction of cross-border smuggling tunnels, Hamas began experiencing severe financial difficulties that made it increasingly difficult for the group to govern.
Earlier this year, Hamas agreed to hand over authority to a temporary unity government reporting to the West Bank-based Abbas, though it refused to disband its security forces. Other key issues remained unresolved, including the fate of more than 40,000 employees hired by Hamas after 2007. The unity government has not yet started operating in Gaza.
Mustafa said that's about to change. "The government is for both the West Bank and Gaza, and it's time to start operating in Gaza despite the difficulties," he said in a phone interview.
In the West Bank, which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinians have limited self-rule in 38 percent of the territory.
The unity Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, will meet in Abbas' former residence in Gaza, Mustafa said. Abbas has not set foot in Gaza since the Hamas takeover, and it remains unclear when he might return to the territory.
During the latest Israel-Hamas war, which ended in late August, Israel launched thousands of airstrikes at what it called Hamas-linked targets, while Hamas fired thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, the majority civilians, according to the U.N. Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians.
More than 60,000 homes and more than 5,000 businesses were destroyed or damaged, according to joint assessments by the Palestinian government and the United Nations.
One of the key challenges will be to get construction materials into blockaded Gaza.
Under the closure, Israel has restricted imports of building materials to prevent cement and steel from being diverted by Hamas for the construction of bunkers and attack tunnels. During the war, Israel discovered and destroyed more than 30 such tunnels.
Mustafa said some construction materials would enter Gaza this week during what he described as a test phase, but did not elaborate. U.N. officials have said they have negotiated a deal with Israel under which imports would gradually increase, while U.N. inspectors and security forces loyal to Abbas will conduct spot checks in Gaza to ensure no shipments are diverted.
In another step, some 3,000 troops loyal to Abbas will take up positions in Gaza soon, Mustafa said, without elaborating.