Hamas and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas today asked the international community not to cut vital aid to the Palestinians, as world leaders met to discuss the fallout from the Islamic militant group’s victory in elections last week.
Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in Gaza, promised that foreign aid would go only toward helping ordinary Palestinians and said a Hamas government is ready to have its spending monitored. He also said the group is ready to negotiate the terms of continued foreign aid with the international community.
“We call on you to direct all the aid and revenues to the treasury of the Palestinian Finance Ministry,” he told a news conference. “We send you this message and ask you to deal with our message with an open mind and big responsibility.”
He spoke before a meeting in London of the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators – the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
EU foreign ministers also met in Brussels on today and called on Hamas to recognise Israel, renounce violence and disarm. They threatened to cut off crucial financial assistance if the demands were ignored.
“The onus is now on Hamas to renounce violence, to accept that the fundamental democratic principle is that matters are pursued by arguments and peacefully and not by violence,” said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
The threats to cut off foreign aid, which makes up nearly half the Palestinian Authority budget, came after Israel’s acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday he will stop the monthly transfer of tens of millions of dollars of tax rebates to the Palestinians if a Hamas government is installed.
Abbas called Israel’s move “severe” and called on European countries not to freeze aid.
“The European countries must understand that the Palestinian people are in bad need of this aid,” he said. ”I hope to god that they will change their positions, both Israel and the European countries”
Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israel, has been trying to soften its image since its victory in last Wednesday’s vote. It has said its aim is to clean up corruption and chaos in the Palestinian areas, and has played down the conflict with Israel.
The group is poised to lead the next government, boding poorly for Abbas’ aim of restarting peace talks. Israel refuses to talk to Hamas, and the US and EU have branded it a terrorist group.
Abbas today said he would talk to Hamas over the next two weeks about forming a government. After meeting visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he said, “We reiterated our commitment to the peace process through negotiations and according to international legitimacy.”
A halt in foreign aid would be devastating for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, the biggest employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Western donors funnelled about €750m into the Palestinian Authority in 2005 to pay salaries and finance desperately needed infrastructure projects.
Failure to pay the 137,000 people on the Palestinian Authority payroll could lead to massive layoffs and ignite violence in an area bristling with guns.
Palestinian officials have cautioned that the Palestinian Authority could collapse if the outside support were to dry up.
On the eve of the Quartet talks, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington wants other nations to cut off aid to the Palestinians.
“The US is not prepared to fund an organisation that advocates the destruction of Israel, that advocates violence and that refuses its obligations” under the Quartet’s “road map” peace plan.
A senior Hamas official said cutting off aid would not get the group to change its positions.
“If the European Union countries and the American administration see this as a means that could lead to a change in Hamas’ strategic position then they are dreaming and are mistaken. Hamas will never accept that,” Mohammed Nazzal, a member of Hamas’ decision-making political bureau, told Al-Arabiya TV.
Haniyeh urged the West to reconsider its threats, saying it must recognise the result of the Palestinian election. ”We in Hamas are ready to meet and have an open dialogue with the Quartet,” Haniyeh said.
Addressing international concerns that aid would be used to fund violence, Haniyeh said: “We assure you that all the revenues will be spent on salaries, daily life and infrastructure. You can review this.”
In other signs of moderation, Hamas leaders have signalled that they are ready for a long-term truce with Israel, while they focus on their internal Palestinian agenda.
With Hamas’ agenda still unclear, both Abbas and the Israelis have turned to Egypt for help. The Cairo government has frequently mediated between the sides.
Abbas was expected in Egypt tomorrow, after a stopover in Jordan. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is to meet with Egyptian officials in Cairo on Wednesday.
Abbas and Hamas will have to divide authorities between them, and officials close to Abbas say a top priority for him is to bring all branches of the security forces under his control.
Currently, the president of the Palestinian Authority – Abbas – commands three of the security services, and a future Hamas-appointed prime minister would control the other three branches. However, the division is not clearly anchored in law.
Hamas needs Abbas to grant international respectability to a future Palestinian government, and is expected to consider his demands seriously.
Control over the disparate security forces is a key step toward restoring order in the Palestinian areas, which have been plagued by chaos and infighting in recent months. The security forces are dominated by Abbas’ Fatah movement, which was trounced in last week’s election, and members appear unwilling to report to Hamas.
About 1,000 Fatah supporters, including dozens of armed gunmen, protested in the West Bank village of Halhoul against allowing Hamas to run the government.
In Gaza, masked gunmen affiliated with Fatah movement briefly took over the Palestinian parliament and an EU office in Gaza City.
The EU office was seized to protest the publication of cartoons deemed insulting to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The gunmen demanded an apology from Denmark and Norway, and said citizens of the two countries would be prevented from entering Gaza. The caricatures were published in Danish and Norwegian newspapers.
Later, Hamas called on Muslims around the world to boycott Danish products. It was the latest in a wave of violent denunciations of the caricatures across the Islamic world.
Jewish settlers who took over a Palestinian marketplace said they agreed to leave voluntarily after winning assurances they would soon be able to return.
Israeli defence officials confirmed the deal, which was aimed at heading off violence between settlers and troops preparing to evict them.