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Arabs pledge same level of aid for Palestinians

Written by: Staff
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KHARTOUM, Mar 26 (Reuters) Arab foreign ministers today dismissed Western explanations for cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority but offered no extra money to compensate for a budget shortfall when Hamas Islamists take office.

The ministers, meeting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to prepare for an Arab summit this week, renewed an old pledge to give the Palestinians some 50 million dollars a month and left open the possibility of giving more later if the Palestinians need it.

They rejected unilateral steps by Israel, as interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in Jerusalem he wanted to define Israel's borders without dealing with a Hamas government.

The Palestinians say they already face a financial crisis because Israel refuses to hand over about 55 million dollars a month which it collects in tax and customs revenue on their behalf.

The United States, which calls Hamas a terrorist organisation and demands it recognise Israel, insisted that the Palestinian Authority give back 50 million dollars as part of a review of US aid after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January.

Hamas might take office tomorrow when the Palestinian Legislative Council convenes for a confidence vote on a 24-member cabinet dominated by the Islamists, who reject the compromises the Palestinians have made with Israel since 1993.

A resolution approved by the Arab ministers said: ''(The council of ministers) calls on the international community to continue to provide grants and financial and economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.'' It said the ministers ''reject the pretexts (for threatening to cut aid) and point out the dangerous negative repercussions it would have on the economic and social circumstances of the Palestinian people and on stability and security in the region.'' They asked the Palestinian Authority to prepare a report on the amount of aid it will lose if donors cut aid and submit it to Arab governments ''to take an appropriate decision on it''.

The Palestinian Authority, which remains led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the electorally defeated Fatah movement, did not invite any Hamas members to join the Palestinian delegation to Khartoum, postponing any dispute over the differences between an Arab peace initiative and Hamas's strategy towards Israel.

MORE REUTERS OM RN2122

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