- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

PARIS — France and the European Commission are leading a diplomatic drive to unblock $42 million in European Union funding for the Palestinian Authority, without waiting for Hamas to renounce violence or recognize Israel.

Senior French officials said their government wanted the money released immediately and handed over in one block, as part of a strategy of reaching out to Hamas.

France hopes that the Islamist group’s stunning victory in the Palestinian legislative elections will prompt Hamas to change into a responsible partner.

The French-led plan has exposed divisions within the European Union about how best to respond to Hamas, which remains on the EU list of banned terrorist organizations.

Diplomats said the issue will be the subject of fierce debate at a meeting of all 25 EU foreign ministers today.

They expressed concerns that although the money would be handed to the caretaker government led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not to the future, Hamas-led government, most factions would see it as “money for Hamas.”

That view was underlined last night when Tzipi Livni, Israel’s acting foreign minister, said Mr. Abbas was no longer “relevant” after the Hamas victory.

Britain has not decided whether to oppose the delivery of the money — which would be the first EU funds to reach the Palestinian Authority since the Hamas victory.

The funds were blocked late last year, in protest of corruption and poor governance by the former Palestinian government. They represent half of the 2005 allocation from the European Commission.

The Bush administration has been careful to distinguish between the caretaker government of Mr. Abbas’ and a future Palestinian government and has agreed upon a joint statement urging measures to stabilize the caretaker government’s finances.

Future EU aid is tied to the “three principles” outlined by the international community — that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and express clear support for the Middle East peace process, as outlined in the Oslo accords.

But France and its backers are at odds with others in the European Union over how soon Hamas must renounce violence and whether it can be expected to do it in a public statement.

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