By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
JERUSALEM, Feb. 20 -- Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Muslim nations Monday to fund the Palestinian government after Hamas takes control of the cabinet, praising the radical Islamic movement for ignoring international pressure to recognize Israel, according to Iranian state television.
"The only way to succeed is to continue resistance against the occupier regime," Khamenei told Khaled Mashal, leader of Hamas's political wing, during his visit to Tehran. The Palestinians "knew that their vote for Hamas meant the fight against the Zionist occupier regime," he said.
Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, won a large parliamentary majority in elections last month. But Israel and Western donors are moving to isolate the Palestinian Authority financially as Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, begins work to form the next cabinet, expected to be complete in about five weeks.
On Sunday, Israel's cabinet froze tax and customs payments that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, drawing a rebuke Monday from the U.N. envoy here. The roughly $55 million in monthly transfers, a process established under the 1993 Oslo accords, accounts for about half of the authority's monthly payroll expenses.
"These are monies that belong to the Palestinians and should not be withheld," Alvaro de Soto, the U.N. envoy, told the Reuters news agency. "It follows that the formation of a new government and the approval of its program should be awaited and that actions prior to that would be premature."
The United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, a group of Middle East peace interlocutors known as the quartet, had recommended last month that Israel delay freezing the funds until after Hamas forms the next cabinet. Quartet officials said they did not want to undermine Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose secular Fatah movement remains in charge of the caretaker government.
Israel's decision to freeze the money immediately makes it doubtful that the Palestinian Authority will be able to pay all of its 150,000 employees and trainees at the end of the month without fresh funding.
The Israeli cabinet has demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and abide by agreements backed previously by Fatah. The quartet has echoed those demands.
Since the Hamas victory, Mashal and other party leaders have been reaching out to Muslim governments for political and financial support to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat.
Abbas met Monday in Gaza with Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's nominee for prime minister, to discuss the process of forming the next cabinet. Once Hamas is officially invited to assemble the cabinet, Haniyeh will have five weeks to do so. Hamas officials began meeting Monday with other Palestinian faction leaders in the hopes of creating a broad government.
Various Arab governments are considering stepping up financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority if aid from Western donors, which totals roughly $1 billion a year, is suspended. The Arab League is working to organize a $50 million monthly payment to the authority.
Khamenei, the unelected cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran, told Mashal that all Muslim countries should contribute to the Palestinian Authority to ensure Hamas's political success.
"Such voluntary aid will create a psychological connection between the Muslims and the Palestinian issue and will have a great effect on the world," Khamenei said, according to Iranian state television.