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U.S. renews millions in aid to West Bank

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration moved quickly yesterday to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas consolidate his hold on the West Bank, renewing millions of dollars of aid that will be parceled out by his Fatah-led government.

In an effort to work around Abbas' militant Hamas rivals who now control the Gaza Strip, the administration will make additional money available through the United Nations for refugee relief, mainly for the 1.5 million Palestinians who inhabit the troubled coastal strip.

The announcements came a day after Abbas declared the Hamas-led Palestinian Parliament powerless and named an emergency Cabinet that included no members of the Islamist group, which seized Gaza last week following a series of violent battles with Fatah forces.

Both the United States and the European Union halted assistance to the Palestinian Authority in early 2006, after Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Parliament. The election result forced Abbas into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with Hamas, which the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization.

The European Union also said yesterday that it would restore assistance to the Palestinians.

But complicating Hamas' efforts to provide services in Gaza, most of the renewed assistance will go to the West Bank, where Fatah remains in charge. U.S. and Israeli officials said they would treat the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as separate entities.

While administration officials presented the resumption of assistance as simply an effort to aid the Palestinian people, experts outside government saw it as an attempt to take advantage of the division between the two factions - boosting Fatah and encouraging dissatisfaction with Hamas, which continues to call for Israel's destruction.

President Bush spoke by telephone yesterday with Abbas, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, offering support for the steps the Palestinian Authority president had announced.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disclosed the resumption of the aid and what she called "normal government-to-government contacts" with the Palestinian Authority in a telephone call to the new Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, whom Abbas appointed over the weekend.

The President is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today at the White House.

"We're at a critical juncture for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples," Rice said at a State Department news conference.

Now that Hamas no longer is playing a role in Abbas' government, Rice said, "We intend to lift our financial restrictions on the Palestinian government, which has accepted previous agreements with Israel and rejects the path of violence."

"This will enable the American people and American financial institutions to resume normal economic and commercial ties with the Palestinian government," Rice said.

She said that the administration would work with Congress on what had been a frozen request for $86 million in assistance for the Palestinians and that it would make available to the United Nations an additional $40 million for refugee relief, targeted mainly at Gaza residents.

The announcement reflects a course the administration set upon last week - in which it will seek to build up Abbas' government, by helping it improve services in the West Bank territory that Fatah still controls, and leave Hamas responsible for the struggling and impoverished Gaza Strip. The U.S. hope is that the contrast in services strengthens Abbas and the moderates who support him.

At the same time, the split left the Bush administration, in effect, supporting the division among Palestinians, even as it expressed a desire for a unified Palestine.

As the administration seeks to make the best of the losses that Abbas suffered in Gaza last week, when Fatah security officials fled in the wake of Hamas' lightning offensive, it might find that Abbas and Fatah have many of the same problems in the West Bank as they had when their government sought to run both territories.

"It's a lot easier to see to it that Hamas fails in Gaza than Fatah succeeds in the West Bank," said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Merely saying 'we want him to succeed' doesn't change the hand he has to play. It doesn't make Fatah an effective governing institution. It doesn't make the puzzle of the West Bank any easier to solve."

At the same time, he said, with Fatah playing no role in Gaza, Hamas might be able to take advantage of whatever it can accomplish there to claim political credit.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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