Wednesday, March 5, 2008

JERUSALEM — Palestinian officials yesterday said Hamas is receiving millions of dollars from the Gulf state of Qatar, some of which they suspect is used to purchase weapons.

The comments were issued as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s peace mission faltered under new Israeli air and ground assaults on the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ rejected her request to resume peace talks.

Miss Rice repeatedly demanded during a visit to the region that the militant Islamist Hamas, which rules Gaza, stop launching rockets at Israeli cities.

She declined to name a specific country or person with sufficient sway over the militant group to change its behavior.

Palestinian Authority officials, however, said that oil-rich Qatar has been such a staunch supporter and promoter of Hamas — both financially and politically — that it is in a unique position to influence the Hamas leadership.

“Qatar gives Hamas millions of dollars a month [on average],” a senior aide to Mr. Abbas told The Washington Times on the sidelines of the Rice-Abbas meetings in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “They say the money is for the people of Gaza, but Hamas steals it, and some of it may be used to buy weapons.”

In fact, the aide noted, Qatar has much more money to spare than Syria and Iran, both of which are also strong backers of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

A second Palestinian official said that Qatar has not been shy in declaring its political support for Hamas and that it regularly hosts the group’s leaders in the capital, Doha. Qatar also has offered repeatedly to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, this official said.

Qatar hosts one of the largest pre-positioning bases for the American military outside of the United States, with warehousing and storage facilities for a heavy armored U.S. Army brigade and the U.S. Air Force, according to

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. directed much of the air war from a command center in Qatar.

Yet its relationship to the U.S. remains an enigma. It successfully lobbied other Arab states to join the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis in November. A few weeks later, it angered the U.S. by hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni withdrew from a high-profile conference in Doha in 2006 at the last minute because of the presence of a Hamas delegation. Israel and the United States refuse to speak directly with Hamas officials.

Last year, the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, tried to talk Shimon Peres, then Israel’s deputy prime minister and now its president, into negotiating with Hamas.

Asked whether Mr. Abbas had suggested in his meeting with Miss Rice asking Qatar for help, the Palestinian officials replied that the Americans already know of Qatar’s influence with Hamas and do not need Palestinians to remind them.

Qatar is a major U.S. ally in the Gulf and hosts a large number of American troops.

Diplomats said the United States has been frustrated with the Qatari government for some time because it funds the Arab TV network Al Jazeera and supports Hamas.

U.S. officials said Miss Rice wants to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while isolating Hamas in hopes that Palestinians in Gaza will eventually turn against the group.

Mr. Abbas rejected her plea, demanding that Israel end military operations in Gaza first.

Mr. Abbas suspended the talks, which are part of a process started at a peace summit hosted by President Bush in Annapolis in November, after Israeli attacks killed more than 120 Palestinians, including women and children, during a five-day offensive that ended Monday.

Palestinians continued to fire rockets at Israel yesterday.

Last night, while Miss Rice was dining with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Israeli military began another assault.

About 25 armored vehicles rumbled into southern Gaza and clashed with militants. A 1-month-old baby was killed in the crossfire, the Associated Press quoted a medical official as saying.

The secretary told Palestinians earlier that she feels their pain from the Israeli military actions, but she put the blame squarely on Hamas.

“There has to be an active peace process that can withstand the efforts of rejectionists to keep peace from being made. The people who are firing rockets do not want peace,” she said. “They sow instability — that is what Hamas is doing.”

“The United States is not unaware nor are we unfeeling of the human toll that has been experienced in this last week,” Miss Rice told reporters in Cairo, the first stop on her two-day trip to the region.

In Washington, Mr. Bush said yesterday that he still thinks Israel and the Palestinians can reach a peace agreement this year.

“This is a process that, you know, always has two steps forward and one step back. We’re just going to make sure that it’s only one step back,” Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office after meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II.

Jon Ward contributed to this report in Washington.

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