RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – The U.S. should not cut off aid to the Palestinians, even after a Hamas government takes over, Palestinian officials told a senior U.S. envoy Saturday, in the first high-level meeting between the two sides since Islamic militants scored a surprise election victory last month.
The U.S. and the European Union, the Palestinian Authority’s main donors, have threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in financial backing if Hamas doesn’t abandon its violent campaign against Israel.
With that threat looming, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who favors peacemaking with Israel, again warned in comments published Saturday that he would quit if Hamas didn’t change its ways.
At the same time, Abbas urged the international community to give the militant group a grace period.
“I think they are now responsible, and in order to assume responsibilities, their policies have to be compatible with international polices,” the Irish Independent newspaper quoted Abbas as telling Britain’s ITV network, in an interview to be broadcast Sunday.
Asked if he would step aside if peacemaking remains elusive, Abbas replied, “We could reach a point where I cannot perform my duty. Then, I will not continue sitting in this place, against and in spite of my convictions. If I can do something I will continue, otherwise I won’t.”
On Friday, Abbas told Israel’s Channel 10 TV that Hamas was working to halt rocket attacks on Israel that have drawn retaliatory Israeli air strikes and artillery fire.
The army killed seven Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a new round of violence on Thursday and Friday.
Abbas was elected separately in January 2005 to a four-year term. Hamas’ routing of his long-ruling Fatah Party in parliamentary elections last month has put Abbas in a power tussle with the militant group, which is bent on Israel’s destruction, but says it might consider a long-term truce as an interim measure.
Western threats to cut off aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority could be the most effective tool in coercing Hamas to moderate its anti-Israel position.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekeat urged U.S. State Department envoy David Welch to keep U.S. cash flowing to the Palestinians even after Hamas forms its government next month.
Erekat noted that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid flow directly into infrastructure projects every year, and not into Palestinian government coffers.
“We urged the U.S. administration to continue helping the Palestinian people, as it did in previous years,” Erekat said after the meeting. “They have never transferred a single dollar to the Palestinian Authority directly. The money was being transferred via non-governmental organizations.”
Welch declined to speak to reporters. Erekat said the U.S. envoy told him, without specifying, that Washington would continue helping the Palestinians, but would redirect U.S. aid.
The U.S. and the EU consider Hamas a terror organization and have said they would not fund a government led by the militant group, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings in the past decade. Currently, they funnel about roughly $900 million annually to the Palestinians, with about one-third of that going from the EU to the Palestinian Authority directly and the rest going to reconstruction projects.
On Friday, EU officials said they would continue supporting the Palestinian Authority during the transition period, but hadn’t decided what to do once Hamas takes over.
EU officials said they want to keep supporting Abbas, who continues to wield considerable power and is seen as a counterweight to Hamas.
Also Friday, Hamas announced that it would travel to Moscow in early March for talks with Russian officials. Russia’s invitation to Hamas has angered Israel, which is seeking to isolate the militant group. Israel also condemned Turkey after Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul met in Ankara last week with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.