- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

The United States and the European Union yesterday announced plans to freeze or cancel nearly $450 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority over the failure of the Hamas-led government to renounce violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The cutoff, denounced by a Hamas spokesman as “blackmail,” was the latest shot in an escalating clash between Western powers and the new Palestinian government after the militant Islamic organization’s stunning win in parliamentary elections in January.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the new Hamas government had failed to endorse the principles of the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace with Israel, including the rejection of violence against the Jewish state and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty.

“The new Palestinian government must take responsibility for the consequences of its policies,” Miss Rice said.

“If it accepts the [road map] principles, or a new government comes to power that accepts them, funding can be restored,” she said.

The tensions in the region were on sharp display yesterday as Israeli aircraft bombed a car carrying Palestinian militants in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing six persons and wounding at least 14 more in the deadliest attack of its kind since Hamas took power. Among those reported killed were Iyad Abul Aynayn, a bomb maker with known ties to Hamas militants, and his 5-year-old daughter.

The Palestinian government is deeply dependent on foreign aid just to fund basic social services and pay the salaries of civil servants. U.S. and EU governments, which have long condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization, have been warning they would cut aid levels since Hamas ousted the more moderate Fatah party in the January vote.

U.S. officials said Miss Rice’s decision would cancel outright $246 million in assistance for public works, economic development and the training of Palestinian public officials planned over the next few years. Another $165 million in U.S. aid has been frozen pending further review.

U.S. and European governments have been searching for a way to continue vital humanitarian aid to the Palestinians without having to deal directly with Hamas authorities.

Miss Rice announced yesterday that the State Department will transfer about $100 million from the canceled funds to Palestinian health, food and education programs, and also will be giving $42 million to boost private civil-society groups. The money will be channeled through the United Nations and relief groups not under the control of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

In Brussels, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, announced it was suspending direct aid worth an estimated $36 million to the Palestinian Authority, again to protest Hamas’ violent rejection of Israel.

The suspension must be endorsed by EU foreign ministers when they meet next week for talks in Luxembourg, but a British official told the Agence France-Presse news service he expected the minister to extend the freeze.

The European Commission said it was exercising “maximum prudence” in cutting off the aid for now, while European states try to formulate a coherent policy toward Hamas. The EU, collectively and through its member-states, is the largest single source of foreign aid for the Palestinians, supplying more than $600 million annually.

Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad condemned the aid moves.

“We will not accept such blackmail,” he told reporters in Gaza. “Hamas was elected democratically, and the Palestinian people are being punished for their choice.”

Aid groups, including Oxfam International, also criticized the move yesterday. Oxfam International officials said the move could inflame popular opinion in the Palestinian territory and reduce Western leverage over Hamas.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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