BRUSSELS,(Reuters) – European Union foreign ministers, who meet in the Austrian town of Salzburg on Friday, will seek ways to continue aiding the Palestinians after a government led by the Hamas militant group takes office soon.
Officials say the executive European Commission and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will present a paper reviewing different forms of EU assistance to the Palestinians while keeping up pressure on Hamas, which is on the EU list of terrorist organisations, to moderate its stance towards Israel.
Among options the ministers are likely to discuss are re-routing some aid through Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, possibly creating a new disbursement agency independent of the Palestinian Authority or using non-governmental organisations.
But each has drawbacks and diplomats said the ministers may also consider continuing limited payments to the PA, at least for a test period, to give Hamas an incentive to change its stance once in office.
“The question is whether we want to provoke a crisis and the financial collapse of the Authority now in the hope that it will discredit Hamas, or whether we want to give them a grace period to act responsibly in government and let them make their own mistakes,” one EU expert said.
The Islamic movement refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist, rejects peace agreements signed with the Jewish state and advocates armed struggle, although it has largely observed an informal truce for the last year.
The Quartet of international mediators grouping the United States, the EU, Russia and the United States, says Hamas must recognise Israel, renounce violence and respect past agreements.
The United States and Israel cut off funds to the PA when Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was nominated as prime minister but the EU gave the Palestinians a short-term lifeline, releasing 120 million euros ($143 million) in aid, mostly bypassing the PA.
That forestalled an immediate financial collapse, but EU officials say ministers will not be able to delay for long a decision on whether to go on funding a Hamas-led government.
They said the paper made no recommendation on that point.
French President Jacques Chirac made clear his difference with Washington when he said on a visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday that he opposed imposing “sanctions” on Hamas.
“I know well that there are some who envisage sanctions. For my part, I am hostile to sanctions in general and in this case in particular … basically the Palestinian people would bear the brunt of it,” he told a news conference.
Chirac also appeared to support Russia’s move to invite Hamas leaders to Moscow for talks on recognising Israel last week, which undercut U.S.-Israeli efforts to isolate the group.
The Europeans have underlined their support for Abbas, whose stock has suddenly risen again in Brussels as a rampart against Hamas after the Islamic movement’s election landslide, by inviting him to meet EU leaders in Vienna and Brussels and address the European Parliament in Strasbourg next week.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has warned foreign donors to the Palestinians against latching on to Abbas as the acceptable face of an administration dominated by Hamas, arguing that he would have little say and was irrelevant.
But EU officials believe Europe has a responsibility to keep doors open during Israel’s fractious campaign for a March 28 general election and avert anarchy among the Palestinians.
“Europe will not let the Palestinians down,” Solana said last week.