U.S. Talks Tough on Gaza Aid
Limits on Distribution of $300 Million Suggest Administration Is Hewing to Bush-Era Stance

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, March 1 -- The United States on Monday will pledge $300 million in humanitarian relief for people in Gaza after the 22-day war with Israel but will maintain restrictions to prevent any assistance from reaching Hamas, State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, attending an international conference here to raise funds for the Gaza Strip, will also announce $600 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by Fatah, a rival of Hamas that is dominant in the West Bank.

The additional money not aimed at Gaza comprises $200 million in budget support to pay wages -- much of which was previously announced -- and $400 million to support reform and development in the West Bank. The full package awaits congressional approval.

Taken together, the announcements underscore how little the Obama administration's policy toward the Palestinian issue has thus far differed from the Bush administration's approach.

Although Obama has named a Middle East envoy, a step President George W. Bush resisted, the policy that will be outlined at the conference indicates that, much like the previous administration, the Obama administration will maintain a tough stance on Hamas, seek to bolster the Islamist movement's rivals and maintain a cool distance from nascent efforts to create a Palestinian unity government. "Hamas is not getting any of this money," Wood emphasized.

Clinton, making her first visit to the Middle East as chief U.S. diplomat, did not speak to reporters upon arrival here. She met Sunday night with former senator George J. Mitchell, the special Mideast envoy, but neither made statements afterward.

Although an international mediating group known as the Quartet has set conditions for dealings with Hamas, European officials have been looking for some sign of greater flexibility from the United States on assisting Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. The question of engagement with Hamas will become more acute if the militant group and Fatah successfully complete negotiations on a unity government; the Bush administration had shunned a previous unity government.

"We're talking about an administration that is only one month in," Wood said, when asked why Obama appeared to be hewing to Bush's path.

Gaza, where unemployment tops 40 percent and 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, was devastated by the recent war, which Israel launched after a cease-fire broke down and Hamas's rockets rained down on Israeli towns.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, a special envoy of the Quartet, briefly visited a United Nations school in Gaza on Sunday and later told the television network al-Jazeera that the images of devastation were "very shocking. One of the things we have got to do is have a different and better strategy for Gaza that actually helps get material in that supports the people."

At the school, in the town of Beit Hanoun, Blair said, "I wanted to come to hear for myself first-hand from people in Gaza, whose lives have been so badly impacted by the recent conflict." He also visited Sderot, an Israeli town that has been frequently struck by Palestinian rockets in recent years.

Palestinian officials hope to raise as much as $2.8 billion in humanitarian relief and reconstruction aid for Gaza. But whether most of the funds will reach Gaza is unclear. Israel maintains tight control of crossings into Gaza and will not allow entry of any items that it says could be used by Hamas to rearm. Israel bans or restricts the importation of cement, steel rods and other material necessary for construction.

International aid groups and Hamas have called for the crossings to be opened, saying the closings unfairly punish Gaza's civilians. But the U.S. position on humanitarian aid is similar to the Israeli stance.

Israel insists that any humanitarian aid should benefit the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, and should pass through established agencies such as the United Nations, said Jonathan Peled, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Israel also wants projects to be individually identified so that the use of materials can be tracked, he said.

Hamas and Israel have declared unilateral cease-fires. With Egypt as a go-between, the two sides have been negotiating a more formal truce. But recent Hamas rocket attacks prompted a stern warning Sunday from outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert, speaking in Jerusalem at the start of his cabinet's weekly meeting, said, "If the rocket fire from Gaza continues, it will be answered with a painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising response from the security forces."

Clinton is due to arrive in Israel on Monday night and will hold talks Tuesday with Israeli officials, including Olmert and prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu. Olmert was forced to cut short his tenure because of a corruption investigation. Menachem Mazuz, Israel's attorney general, said Sunday that he is considering indicting Olmert in connection with allegations that he unlawfully took cash-stuffed envelopes from a Jewish American businessman.

Clinton will meet with Palestinian officials on Wednesday.

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