- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

A top Palestinian here to talk trade and aid emphasized instead yesterday that he wanted the United States to pressure Israel to end its siege of Palestinian towns.
"Lifting up the siege is more important than humanitarian aid," said Maher Masri, the Palestinian Authority's minister of economy and trade and part of a three-member delegation meeting this week with White House, State Department, intelligence and aid officials.
Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mr. Masri said reforms in recent weeks have begun to end corruption in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
All expenditures and revenues of the Palestinian Authority are to be funneled through a single bank account controlled by the finance ministry, he said. "No extrabudgetary expenses will be allowed anymore."
Next week, accountants from the international firm PricewaterhouseCoopers are to travel to the Palestinian territories to draw up articles of association for a Palestinian Investment Fund aimed at bringing cash into the region, said Mr. Masri.
The economy minister said another aim of reforms would be to create a pension fund, with World Bank assistance, for government employees. "That will let us lay off excessive staff," he said.
The Palestinian delegation also is asking the United States to press Israel to release more of the $650 million in revenue from customs duties owed to the Palestinian Authority. The funds had been withheld since the current Palestinian uprising began in late September 2000.
In the past 10 days, Israel has turned over $50 million from those funds to the new unified bank account managed by Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said yesterday that U.S., Egyptian and Jordanian officials would oversee reforms of Palestinian security services.
Mr. Arafat, in an interview with Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, described the Washington talks as "positive and constructive" and said it was agreed that foreign specialists would help overhaul the Palestinian security apparatus.
"There is an agreement that Americans, Egyptians and Jordanians will come and administer the training of our security branches," Mr. Arafat said from his West Bank compound ringed by Israeli tanks.
U.S. officials have ostracized Mr. Arafat since President Bush called in June for a new Palestinian leadership but have agreed to receive Cabinet ministers who are appointed by Mr. Arafat.
As Palestinian ministers met with senior U.S. officials, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon branded the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority a "murderous gang." The Palestinians said Mr. Sharon's broadside was an attempt to sabotage their first high-level talks with Washington in months.
Hamas, an anti-Israel militia, dismissed as futile any Palestinian crackdown on militants.
Usama Hamdan, who heads Hamas in Lebanon, yesterday told Reuters news agency in Beirut that Hamas would continue to kill Israelis to avenge Israel's tactic of tracking and killing major militants.

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