UNITED NATIONS, AP -The United States bowed to pressure from its allies Tuesday and agreed to support a new program to temporarily funnel additional aid directly to the Palestinian people.
A surprise statement by Mideast peacemakers, issued after a day of closed-door diplomatic meetings, did not say precisely how much or what kind of aid they would provide. But the agreement seemed to underscore a concern that months of withholding most aid from the Palestinians, part of an effort to pressure the new Hamas-led government toward a more accommodating stance with Israel, was harming the Palestinian people.
The new fund represents a slight softening of the hard U.S. line against financial engagement with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has conducted numerous terrorist attacks. The United States, the European Union and Israel list Hamas as a terrorist organization.
The United States and European Union have cut off direct aid to the Palestinian government while pledging to help meet the crushing humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people through charities and other means.
Israel has also refused to transfer $55 million in monthly tax revenues it collects for the Palestinian Authority.
Speaking Wednesday in Ramallah on the West Bank, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh slammed the United States and its Western allies for demands on his government, but did not reject the temporary program.
“The Quartet brings from time to time conditions to force the government to concede the rights and recognize the legality of the occupation,” Ismail Haniyeh said.
“I believe the government will remain faithful to the Palestinian rights and will keep seeking the equation that protects the Palestinian people. The financial crisis has never been a factor dividing the Palestinians. It will be a factor that unites them,” he told reporters.
Overseas donations, mostly from Europe, have long sustained the cash-strapped and bloated Palestinian government.
The new fund is supposed to administer only money for basic human needs. But both European and U.S. diplomats said that at some point it might be used to pay salaries for urgently needed doctors or teachers or for other services that the Hamas government otherwise would be expected to provide.
Hamas won election in part because of a record of providing services that the previous secular Fatah leadership did not.
The aid cutoff has left the Palestinian government virtually broke and increasingly unable to provide basic services.
Some 165,000 government workers, whose incomes had supported one-third of Palestinian families, have not been paid for the past two months, and the World Bank warned this week of an impending crisis.
Frustrations rose to the surface over the weekend, when hundreds of Palestinians staged strikes and demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza to demand payment, the first public signs of discontent with Hamas’ handling of the situation.
European governments in particular have been alarmed at the worsening plight for unemployed Palestinians and concerned that charities and U.N. agencies could not meet the demand for services or handle the amount of money that might be needed, diplomats said.
They pressed the United States to agree to the new humanitarian fund, even though that kind of assistance may be an indirect benefit to Hamas. The United States agreed on condition the fund be temporary and limited to programs that meet basic needs, a senior State Department official said
“It would be against our values to let people starve,” said Marc Otte, the EU’s special envoy for the Mideast.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the European Union would take the lead in setting up the new fund. The United States is not expected to contribute. The United Nations and Russia, the other partners in the Quartet peacemaking group along with the U.S., also endorsed the program.
The international group issued a warning to Hamas three months ago that it risked a loss of international aid if it did not change its policies.
“The thrust of this is the international community is still trying to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people,” Rice said.
The European Union has proposed sending money directly to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be spent on hospitals, schools and humanitarian needs. While the U.S. says it wants to keep sending humanitarian aid, it has been cool to the European proposal.
Even greater differences exist between the U.S. and Russia.
“We’re not for cutting off any aid,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Tuesday.
The U.S. says it respects the democratic elections that produced the Hamas victory and has no express policy to oust the militants. Its financial strategy, however, seems aimed at undermining public support for Hamas and making it difficult or impossible for the militants to govern.
Although the EU has also cut aid, public opinion in Europe often favors Palestinian causes and governments are leery of looking too harsh. The EU and its 25 member states were the biggest source of aid to the Palestinians, granting some $634 million a year.
The EU had proposed the new fund last week as a way to maintain an arm’s length from the Hamas government while trying to meet a growing need.
The fund could be jointly managed by donors through an international organization such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations.
This has happened before. In 1994, the IMF created a fund that spent more than $250 million for development and other projects in Palestinian territories. It was shut down in 2001.