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U.S. to limit its aid for Gaza

Only a third of a $900-million package for the Palestinians is for humanitarian needs -- and none for rebuilding -- in the Hamas-run territory. The rest will help the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

March 02, 2009|Paul Richter

SHARM EL SHEIK, EGYPT — The Obama administration intends to spend most of a $900-million Palestinian aid package on support for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, rather than in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip communities that were badly damaged in the recent weeks-long Israeli offensive, a State Department official said Sunday.

Robert A. Wood, the department's chief spokesman, said that about $300 million of the money would be spent on humanitarian relief for Gaza, and the remainder would help offset the Palestinian Authority's budget shortfall and fund its economic development, security and other projects in the West Bank. The authority is run by the more moderate Palestinian faction Fatah.

None of the money will go to rebuilding Gaza, even though the aid is to be announced today at an international donors conference convened by Egypt for reconstruction in the war-scarred seaside enclave.

U.S. officials who declined to be identified disclosed last week, with some fanfare, that a full $900 million would be earmarked for Gaza. But the State Department's decision reflects the political complexities of rebuilding an area controlled by a militant group that the United States, Israel and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. Hamas took control of Gaza after the collapse of a unity government with rival Fatah in June 2007. Israel said it launched its assault after years of rocket fire from Gaza.

U.S. officials are opposed to spending any money on reconstruction aid to Gaza that might fall into the hands of Hamas and help strengthen the group's standing among the enclave's 1.5 million residents. Though the Palestinian Authority has declared its intention to help rebuild, Hamas is barring authority personnel from entering to help.

"We cannot funnel money through Hamas," Wood said.

In addition, the Israeli military is preventing the entry into Gaza of materials such as cement and piping that could be used for reconstruction or such military purposes as rockets and security installations. The Israelis allow several kinds of food and medicine to enter Gaza past its blockade.

It is likely that Congress would block any appropriation that might go to Hamas, an Islamic group whose doctrine calls for the destruction of Israel. U.S. officials acknowledge that, in any case, they face serious obstacles in winning approval for a $900-million appropriation at a time of economic distress.

Wood said that the breakdown of the $900 million was: $300 million for "urgent humanitarian needs" in Gaza; $200 million to help the Palestinian Authority meet its budget; and $400 million for the authority's programs to improve governance, security and economic development.

The Palestinian Authority faces a budget shortfall of about $1.6 billion. Wood said the authority could spend some of its new U.S. aid on Gaza if it cared to. The donors conference is expected to raise more than $2 billion for Gaza rebuilding, including $1.2 billion from Persian Gulf states.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Sharm el Sheik on Sunday morning to take part in the conference, the first stop in a trip that marks her initial foray into Middle East diplomacy in her new position. She has underscored her determination to avoid spending any U.S. money that might help Hamas.

She said in an interview Friday that the U.S. would provide assistance "only if we determined that our goals can be furthered, rather than undermined or subverted."

State Department officials say they are hoping the donors conference will not only look at ways of rebuilding Gaza, but also help advance stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But Clinton has arrived at a moment of great uncertainty.

Israeli leaders continue struggling to form a new government, a process that could take weeks. Israel's prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud party and has long been opposed to the two-state solution to the Mideast conflict that Washington has favored, gave up efforts over the weekend to form a broad coalition government with Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party.

Meanwhile, Hamas and the secular, Western-backed Fatah are in serious talks about forming an interim "national unity" Palestinian government until elections next year. The creation of such a government would cause new problems for the Obama administration because of Hamas' participation.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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