Hillary Clinton has arrived in Israel, beginning her first foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the new U.S. secretary of state. The top U.S. diplomat landed in Tel Aviv late Monday from Egypt, where she attended a donors' conference that raised more than $5 billion in pledges to rebuild the war-torn Gaza Strip. Pressure is rising for a political breakthrough in the Middle East peace process.
During her stop at the donors' conference in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, Secretary Clinton said no one can afford any more setbacks or delays in forging peace in the Middle East.
She said the United States hopes that by providing aid to help the Gaza Strip rebuild, it can foster conditions for a peaceful and responsible Palestinian state.
"Our [U.S.] pledge of over $900 million designed in coordination with the Palestinian Authority and to be submitted to the United States Congress will deliver assistance to the people of Gaza and the West Bank," she said. "All of us recognize that human progress depends on the human spirit, that a child growing up in Gaza without shelter, healthcare or an education has the same right to go to school, see a doctor and live with a roof over her head, as a child growing up in your country or mine."
Conditions in Gaza remain dire after Israel's 22-day campaign on militants destroyed thousands of homes. Journalist Mohammed Dawwas in Gaza, reporting for VOA, says heavy rain in the last few days has created even more misery for those living in tents.
"All of these tents were damaged and people had just to get out of [them] and escape and go somewhere to be sheltered because it was all ruined," he said. "It was mud everywhere. I mean, you just can [not] believe what was going on there. It was like another invasion, but by water."
Pledges at the donor conference in Egypt far exceeded the amount that Palestinian officials had hoped to raise for reconstruction efforts. The challenge now is putting the money to work to rebuild Gaza.
Israel controls all border crossings into Gaza and does not allow construction materials such as concrete or steel to enter the Strip. The Israelis fear that Hamas may use the materials to build military facilities and step up attacks on the Jewish state.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told VOA his government wants assurances that the funds will not be misused.
"With supplies like concrete, with steel, unfortunately you could have a situation where that is diverted by Hamas, and instead of helping people to rebuild houses, they'll be building underground bunkers for their own military machine," he said. "So I think we in the international community have to find mechanisms to make sure that aid for the people of Gaza is precisely that."
Secretary Clinton's schedule on Tuesday includes meetings with Israeli leaders. She is due to travel to the West Bank on Wednesday for meetings with top Palestinian officials. Her aim is to see how best to revive the stalled peace process.
Both sides are eager to know the details of how the new Obama administration will pursue peace in the region. Both have a long list of expectations.
Politics professor Ali Jarbawi at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank says many Palestinians believe that years of negotiations have yielded them nothing. He says they hope the Obama administration will use the U.S. influence on Israel to give the peace process a push.
"We want this administration to exert its pressure to finally find out whether Israel is serious about reaching a settlement with the Palestinians or wants only to impose a settlement on the Palestinians," he said.
Israel expects the same level of support that it has historically received from Washington, and Israeli leaders seek cooperation from the Obama administration to keep up the pressure on terrorists, as well as on Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
It is uncertain how much progress Secretary Clinton could make on this trip. Israel is the midst of a political storm, following inconclusive general elections last month in which hawkish parties made a strong showing.
A new Israeli government will likely be led by rightist Benjamin Netanyahu, who says he wants peace with the Palestinians but is unwilling to negotiate on key issues and has refused to declare his support for the two-state solution favored by the United States.