Tony Blair's first visit to Gaza yesterday as envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, comprising the EU, America, the UN and Russia, could not have been more timely. Weeks after the end of Israel's 22-day military offensive in Gaza, the work of reconstruction is being held up by two separate, albeit related, issues.
One is the unwillingness of the two states adjoining Gaza – Israel and Egypt – to open their borders freely to the passage of aid convoys. This is partly because they fear that deliveries of such innocent-sounding materials as sand and concrete might not always be used to rebuild houses but could be used to build weapons and bombs; also because Israel and Egypt are loath to do anything that suggests even a tacit recognition of the Hamas-run authority in Gaza.
At the same time, Arab states' financial donations towards reconstruction are being held up by the insistence of the internationally recognised Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the West Bank that any money for Gaza should be channelled through them.
It is not easy to square this circle, one of the results of which is to leave families in Gaza camping in the rubble of their ruined homes. Indeed, the wish to rebuild Gaza, but not give Hamas the legitimacy it seeks in the process, is a dilemma that will be in the fronts of the minds of the representatives of all the donor states attending the aid conference on Gaza which opens today in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt.
The Europeans, while maintaining their official boycott of Hamas, will nevertheless want to see more pressure being applied on Israel's government, at the very least over the question of allowing greater access for humanitarian aid deliveries.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, making her first trip to the region as Barack Obama's Secretary of State, will be offering a large cheque for Gaza's reconstruction – up to $900m (£629m), reportedly. This is almost one-third of what the Palestinian Authority estimates is the total "bill" for the Gaza conflict. But at the same time, she has made it clear that the handover of this money is conditional on Hamas renouncing terrorism and recognising Israel.
While none of these points is easy to square with any of the others, the mere fact that Mr Blair has gone to Gaza, hot on the heels of other key Western leaders including Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, shows that everyone accepts that progress cannot be made towards a comprehensive Middle East peace by pretending Gaza – or its Hamas government – do not exist.
In fact, the parameters of the Blair trip illustrate the dilemmas Western leaders encounter when trying to draw a line between a principled rejection of Hamas's Islamist ideology and sensible recognition of facts on the ground. While Mr Blair was careful to meet no Hamas officials on his visit, it is equally clear that his team must have arranged the trip with officials from Gaza's Hamas government.
Such compromises should not be seen as messy or hypocritical but as necessary and pragmatic elements of a new more nuanced policy.
So far, the West's approach of totally isolating Hamas has failed totally to weaken the Islamists' grip on Gaza. If Mr Blair's trip, and those of others, signals the start of a more direct and active involvement on the part of the West in the affairs of the Gaza Strip, that can only be to the good.Reuse content