- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

The West’s economic squeeze of the Hamas-led Palestinian government may only serve to promote more extremism and further polarize the region, the head of the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians said yesterday as violent protests rocked the area.

Thousands of Hamas supporters held protests across Gaza yesterday, burning U.S. and Israeli flags and calling the aid cutoff a “starvation and siege” of Palestinians. Palestinian officials have warned the economy could collapse within months.

“We are really terrified” of what will happen if the situation is not turned around, Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency told The Washington Times during a one-day stop in Washington.

“We are not talking of an explosion in Gaza alone, but its effect on the whole region,” Mrs. AbuZayd said. “Governments in the region will start taking sides, and this will polarize the region more than before.”

A British proposal to set up a trust fund to help pay overdue salaries directly to employees of the Palestinian Authority is being blocked by the U.S. administration, Reuters news agency reported, citing Western diplomats.

The European Commission announced yesterday it would propose that the European Union offer $43 million in humanitarian aid for food, sanitation, water and health projects in an effort to prevent the Palestinian Authority from collapsing, Agence France-Presse reported. Last year, the European Union gave $130 million.

Although freely elected to office, Hamas is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations and has refused to recognize Israel or to disarm its military wing — key conditions to resuming donor aid.

More than 160,000 people, or roughly 30 percent of the Palestinian work force — including 70,000 armed security personnel — have not been paid their salaries for two months as a result of the U.S., European and other donor nations’ decision to cut aid and Israel’s decision to stop tax transfers to the Palestinian leadership.

“There will be a lot of refugees and non-refugees in a bad way, in need of food and medical care, and we are quite frightened,” Mrs. AbuZayd said.

She said the number of people requesting aid had jumped from an average of 800 a month in the past five years to 25,000 last month, and the number was expected to jump again in the upcoming weeks.

Mrs. AbuZayd was in Washington to talk with State Department and National Security Council officials in an effort to find a solution to the crisis as humanitarian agencies struggled to increase their effort to help those affected by the political policies. But she said she had found little indication that the United States was prepared to change its stance.

“There is not much flexibility from this side of the Atlantic. … We will make our case, but we are not too confident that we will get too far on it,” Mrs. AbuZayd said.

“People expect pressure to succeed. I think it might push in the wrong direction. We don’t know who will break first,” she added.

Mrs. AbuZayd said the Palestinian government needs $165 million a month to pay for salaries and utilities. The government itself generates only roughly $30 million, and another $50 million came from Israeli tax collections.

Thousands of Hamas supporters rallied in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where women and young girls handed over their jewelry and men put money into collection boxes passed around by Hamas officials, Reuters reported.

They cheered as Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spoke to the crowd via a video link from Gaza City. “We may starve, but we will not cave in,” he said.

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