By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 30, 2006
GAZA CITY, Jan. 29 -- Israeli officials sought support for an international boycott of a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, as leaders of the radical Islamic group said Sunday they did not expect the Bush administration to end funding once they form a cabinet in the coming weeks. Doing so would conflict with the democratic values the administration promotes in the region, they said.
"We don't have any fears," said Saed Siyam, a Hamas candidate elected to parliament last week who frequently serves as the group's emissary to the outside world. "The American and the Europeans have an interest in this also. They will be embarrassed in this part of the world if they punish a people simply for expressing their democratic wishes."
The resounding victory of Hamas -- designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and the United States -- has threatened the Palestinian Authority's lifeblood of foreign aid. But the collapse of the authority, which has been dominated by the secular Fatah party, would pose enormous financial risks for the Israeli government and could give countries opposed to U.S. policies a chance to play a larger role in financing the Palestinians.
"Israel and the international community are now about to collapse the Palestinian Authority, and that would bring us back to the occupied-occupier relationship," said Ghassan Khatib, the outgoing Palestinian planning minister who is not a member of either major party. He added that this would "force Israel" to shift from its current indirect responsibility for matters in the territories "back to a direct responsibility for all Palestinian needs."
The group known as the quartet -- the United States, the E.U., Russia and the United Nations -- is scheduled to meet Monday in London to consider whether to continue funding the Palestinian government. Hamas won 74 of the parliament's 132 seats in the elections last week, according to a final count released Sunday, ending the long dominance of Fatah and earning Hamas the right to form the next cabinet.
Spending nearly its entire $1 billion in annual, locally generated revenue on salaries, the Palestinian Authority is running a monthly deficit of more than $50 million. The government also receives about $1 billion a year in foreign aid, mostly from the United States and Europe.
In recent days, President Bush has suggested it would be impossible to continue assisting the Palestinian Authority, created under the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel, with Hamas a part of the government. "I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform," Bush said.
Hamas has long opposed the peace agreement, and its military wing has been responsible for attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Last year, the Bush administration provided $403 million in development aid to the Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the form of public works projects and other programs managed mostly by nongovernmental organizations. European governments provided roughly $300 million.
Israel is also threatening to stop reimbursing the Palestinian Authority the roughly $50 million a month it collects in taxes and customs fees on the Palestinians' behalf. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official Sunday as saying the next payment, due this week, would not be made.
Under international law, Israel remains the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, with responsibility for the well-being of the roughly 4 million Palestinians in those territories. This legal designation has not been modified, despite Israel's departure from this unruly coastal strip last year. The Palestinian Authority has been providing health, education and welfare services that Israel would have to finance in its absence. There are approximately 135,000 Palestinians on the payroll, 40 percent of whom are members of the security services.
In recent days, the Israeli government has been shoring up support for a boycott of the Palestinian Authority once Hamas forms its first cabinet. That should happen soon after parliament convenes in early March.
The Hamas leadership was scheduled to meet here Sunday with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah's leader. The meeting was postponed, however, due to security risks posed by a Fatah protest, which was also later canceled.
Before a weekly cabinet meeting, where the Hamas victory was the central topic, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "Israel ascribes great importance to the formation of a united international position that will make it clear to the Palestinians that under no circumstances can we either accept nor countenance a PA, part or all of which is composed of an armed organization that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel."
Olmert and the acting foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, have been calling counterparts in Europe and urging them to cut funds to the Palestinian government once Hamas enters. Olmert on Sunday reiterated Israel's demand that before joining the government, Hamas renounce violence, remove from its charter the call for Israel's destruction and disarm its military wing.
"These principles are accepted by most of the international community, and on this matter I do not intend to make any compromises," Olmert said.
Israeli security officials have accused Iran and Syria of sponsoring Hamas, a charge Siyam denied during an interview at his home here. He said the group has a presence in more than 80 countries through the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic movement founded in Egypt in 1928, of which Hamas is an offshoot.
At a meeting with reporters Sunday, Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's security service, said Hamas would have to decide whether to pursue the "Palestinian channel" or the "Iranian channel" in the coming weeks. "If they obey the Iranian channel, they are heading for a cliff and I think that everyone understands what is going to happen," he said. "If they obey the Palestinian channel, they will have to amend the Hamas charter."
Siyam, a former high school science teacher who won a parliamentary seat from Gaza, said: "If the European Union and America cut their aid, according to my estimation, the Arab governments will increase their support. It will be a chance for them to improve their relations with the Palestinian government.
"But Hamas is an independent movement and does not work for any outside agency," he said. "Why does Israel have the right to take America's money and it's not the Palestinians' right to take money from other organizations and institutions?"
Siyam, who will be involved in discussions about the next cabinet, said it was too early to say whether Hamas would participate in the government as leaders of ministries or would support a cabinet of nonpartisan technocrats. Such a composition could allow the Bush administration and the Europeans to continue funding the government, given that Hamas would not be directly managing the ministries, though it would certainly be influencing decisions behind the scenes.
Siyam held out hope that Fatah, which won 45 seats in the election, would join the cabinet to form a national coalition.
"Hamas will make their own government and it will find support among independents and technocrats," said Ahmed Helles, Fatah's general secretary in Gaza. "But we have an interest in showing Hamas make these decisions without any backup."
At a news conference Sunday, members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of Fatah, warned party leaders not to support Hamas in government. Some wore masks and carried assault rifles. The threat was clear.
"Anyone who does otherwise will be punished," said the group's spokesman, Abu Mohammed.