Israel to release Palestinian taxes

Millions for aid, bypassing Hamas government


JERUSALEM -- Israel said yesterday that it would release about $11 million in Palestinian tax money that it has been holding and allow the funds to be used for medicine and equipment for Palestinian hospitals while bypassing the Hamas-led government.

The decision came against a backdrop of severe economic and humanitarian problems in the Gaza Strip and tensions between Palestinian factions that some believe could ignite civil war. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sought to cool tempers yesterday, but security officials said they found a bomb in the road near the home of one of his top aides, Rashid Abu Shbak.

Israeli officials said the money would be used to help stock hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through international aid organizations, though the mechanism was still to be worked out.

It represents about 5 percent of the estimated $200 million in tax revenues and customs duties that Israel has collected since Hamas took control of the Palestinian government. Israel collects about $50 million per month on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. In February, Israel stopped transferring the money to keep it from Hamas, an Islamic movement sworn to Israel's destruction.

"We will not transfer so much as a penny to any Palestinian official, but ... we will render such assistance as may be necessary for humanitarian needs," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"The money is Palestinian money," said Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad. "We don't want Israel to control our priorities and direct the money where they want."

Israel's freezing of the tax and customs revenue, closures of border crossings and cutoff of most foreign aid have left the Palestinian government unable to pay workers and hospitals short of medicines. Skirmishes between militants of Hamas and Fatah have added to the tension.

Abbas, speaking yesterday at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, insisted that "there will be no civil war among Palestinians."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Premier Shimon Peres met with Abbas at Sharm el-Sheik yesterday. It was the highest-level encounter since Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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