Wednesday, May 10, 2006

NEW YORK — The United States agreed under pressure yesterday to the creation of a system to transfer funds for salaries and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians — a softening of its unbending effort to isolate Hamas.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also announced a donation of $10 million in emergency medical assistance for residents of the Gaza Strip, where hospitals are reporting shortages of medical supplies because of the cutoff of aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

As much as $4 million worth of supplies could be distributed as early as today, according to the State Department, with the remainder to be distributed through the United States Agency for International Development and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“The thrust of this is the international community is still trying to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people,” said Miss Rice, who hours earlier had urged the world to maintain a hard line against Hamas.

The announcements followed a daylong meeting of the Middle East Quartet — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — where several Arab leaders warned that the financial squeeze on the Palestinian Authority (PA) could lead to civil war.

Today, hours after the agreement to channel direct aid to the Palestinians, Hamas signaled it still had problems accepting Western demands on Israel.

“The Quartet have conditions. They aim to push the Palestinian government to make concessions that harm [Palestinian] rights and red lines and give the [Israeli] occupation legitimacy,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Mr. Haniyeh, speaking to reporters in Gaza, did not elaborate but Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghazi Hamad said a statement would be issued later today in response to the Quartet’s decision.

Hamas has largely abided by a cease-fire for more than a year but says talks with Israel would be a waste of time.

There have been armed clashes this week between followers of Hamas — the militant Islamist group that controls the PA — and its political rival Fatah. As a struggle over control of security forces intensified, fighting yesterday injured nine persons, including five children.

Today, the Hamas-led government and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction outlawed the carrying of arms by militants, issuing a joint statement announcing the unprecedented measure.

“Anyone who carries arms will be considered an outlaw,” Fatah spokesman Ahmed Hilles told a joint press conference with Mr. Haniyeh.

Meanwhile, the PA has been unable to pay salaries for two months after the United States and Europe cut off aid and Israel began holding back customs duties collected on the PA’s behalf.

Washington, which lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, has also pressured international banks to block other countries from sending money to the PA.

The Washington Times reported last week that patients have begun dying at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital because the budget crunch has left it without money to pay for critical medical supplies. Subsequent reports elsewhere this week have contributed to a sense of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan issued dire warnings to the Quartet members at the beginning of their meetings yesterday, according to diplomats briefed on the meeting. The World Bank issued a similar prediction on Monday, noting that social order in Gaza was stretched thin.

The European Union proposed yesterday to set up a “funding mechanism” for a three-month trial period that could funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian people through aid groups or third parties, bypassing the Hamas-led government.

Diplomats said the money could begin flowing in “weeks, not days” and would likely pass through the World Bank.

Disbursements would likely be audited by a major accounting firm in accordance with demands for accountability from Washington, which hopes to avoid a repetition of the scandal-plagued Iraq oil-for-food program.

“The goal is not to transfer responsibility for meeting the needs of the Palestinians from the government, but to provide assistance to the Palestinian people,” Miss Rice said. She blamed the plight of the Palestinian people squarely on Hamas.

The Quartet, created four years ago to try to steer the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peaceful two-state solution, issued a statement repeating its demands that the new Palestinian government recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous agreements and obligations.

The statement “condemned” the Palestinian Authority’s failure to halt terrorism and its justification of a deadly April 17 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

The group also expressed “concern” over Israeli military operations in Gaza, settlement expansion in the West Bank, and the confiscation of Palestinian land for the construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

Many in the Middle East think the United States and Israel have been trying to create a financial crisis in the Palestinian territories in hopes that Mr. Abbas would call new elections in which Hamas would be defeated.

But Mr. Abbas — the leader of Fatah who is committed to negotiating with Israel — joined Mr. Haniyeh of Hamas yesterday in pleading for international assistance.

“Western and Arab donors should realize that the Palestinian people are suffering hardships and the international community which believes in liberty, justice and human rights should not be prepared to accept such a situation,” Mr. Abbas said at a Gaza City press conference.

Late last night, senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat told Reuters news agency the Quartet plan did not go far enough.

“We had hoped the Quartet would announce immediate continuation of aid to the Palestinian people because the continuation of the suspension of aid is leading to a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

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