Israel accepts proposal for aid to Palestinians

Government insists humanitarian funds bypass Hamas


JERUSALEM -- Israel said yesterday that it would accept a decision by international mediators to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, provided the funds do not fall into the hands of the Hamas-led government.

The so-called Quartet, consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, agreed a day earlier on a temporary mechanism for helping the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority to pay for urgently needed humanitarian needs such as medical supplies and other goods and services.

The Bush administration bowed to strong pressure from its allies in agreeing to the proposal but will not contribute financially.

Since Hamas took power in March, Israel has strongly lobbied Western nations to refrain from providing aid to the Palestinian government because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and to renounce violence.

But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it had no wish to trigger a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"From our perspective, the Quartet's decision to give more humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, not through the Hamas government, is certainly acceptable," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio.

Israel signaled, though, that it might object at some point to the use of Quartet-channeled funds to pay the salaries of the 165,000 Palestinian government employees, who have not received paychecks for two months. The Europeans, who will take the lead in implementing the plan, have indicated that some of the money might be used to pay civil servants.

After assuming power, Hamas brought thousands of loyalists onto the government payroll.

"We certainly don't want to strengthen Hamas by paying employees who are not absolutely necessary," Livni said.

The Quartet plan, the outlines of which are sketchy, pointed to possible cracks in what had been a general consensus among Western nations in favor of isolating Hamas diplomatically and financially. In recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that it is very difficult to do so without exacerbating the hardship on ordinary Palestinians.

The Palestinian government's executive branch, led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the Quartet decision. Some of the money probably will be funneled through his office.

"We hope ... to avoid a human catastrophe," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide.

Hamas, perhaps mindful of the precariousness of its position, refrained from criticizing the aid plan, even while denouncing aid cutoffs as a means of pressuring Hamas to change its policies.

"The Quartet sometimes seeks to force the government to concede its rights and recognize the legality of the [Israeli] occupation," Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, told reporters in Gaza City.

But even Mahmoud Zahar, the firebrand Hamas foreign minister, welcomed the Quartet move: "We appreciate every effort to help the Palestinian people."

Israel's army radio reported that Israel probably will come under new pressure to halt its freeze on the monthly transfer of about $55 million in tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians' behalf.

One way for Israel to free up that tax money without letting it reach Hamas would be to use it for such services as gas and electricity, which reach the West Bank and Gaza through Israeli suppliers.

The Israeli company that provides fuel to the Palestinian territories said yesterday that it was halting deliveries because of about $25 million in unpaid bills.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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