EU freezes aid to Palestinian government
Brussels, Apr 7: The European Commission said today it had halted aid payments to the Hamas-led Palestinian government because the new cabinet had not recognised Israel's right to exist or renounced violence.
''For the time being, there are no payments to or through the Palestinian Authority,'' Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said.
She told a news briefing the European Union executive was adopting ''a policy of maximum prudence'' which did not prejudge decisions by foreign ministers of the 25-nation bloc when they meet in Luxembourg next Monday.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Prague the Palestinian government that took office last week, led by the Islamist movement, had not yet signalled clearly it would meet the international community's key conditions.
These were to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace agreements. Hamas continues to advocate the violent destruction of the Jewish state.
''Therefore, we have to prepare some changes in terms of financing,'' Steinmeier said.
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Naser al-Shaer said if the EU wanted Hamas to change its stance, it should negotiate with the new government and not just repeat a ''broken record'' about the three principles.
The Commission and EU governments appeared keen to play down the aid freeze and avoid responsibility for pulling the plug on the Palestinian Authority, to which the EU has been the main donor since its creation under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
A British official said he expected the Commission to inform ministers of its decision to suspend aid to the Palestinian government temporarily, while Udwin said it was for ministers to take the decision.
Diplomats said the freeze covered all direct aid to the Palestinian government and payment of public employees' salaries with EU funds through the World Bank, but not humanitarian aid through international and non-government organisations.
About 30 million euros 35 million dollars) in direct government aid was currently in the pipeline, an EU official said.
The Commission released 120 million euros in direct and indirect aid last month, before Hamas took office. EU diplomats said talk of the Palestinian Authority running out of cash to pay salaries at the end of April, with the risk of social chaos, was exaggerated.
The EU redirected some aid last month to pay Palestinian electricity bills directly to suppliers, including the Israeli electricity company, without going through the government.
A draft statement prepared for the EU ministers, seen by Reuters on Thursday, did not mention a suspension of aid and said only that direct assistance to the Palestinian government would inevitably be affected.
Ministers will also discuss what, if any, contacts the bloc should have with the government, since Hamas is on the EU's list of outlawed terrorist organisations.
New Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar has twice this week appeared to float trial balloons by talking of a ''two-state solution'', code for co-existence with Israel, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that was later half-denied, and an interview with the London daily The Times.
An Austrian EU presidency official said Hamas seemed to be on a very slow march towards recognising Israel but its statements were ''three steps forward, two steps back''.
Deputy Prime Minister al-Shaer told Reuters: ''It's up to them whether they want to help. We do know what they are after: they want to give aid but not through the government.
''They have been repeating this broken record on the issue of recognising Israel and renouncing violence. Despite all our appeals to open dialogue with them, they did not change.
''If they want something, they have to negotiate with us, talk to us,'' he said.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas lawmaker, urged the EU not to take a decision which he said would represent ''a boycott and collective punishment of the Palestinian people for practising their democratic rights''.