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'Quartet' Discusses Economic Aid to Palestinians


Senior Western officials met in Brussels Thursday to discuss aid to the Palestinian territories, just days before a Hamas-led government is expected to take power.

The talks by representatives of the so-called Middle East quartet - Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations - come at crucial time. The radical group, Hamas, is reportedly on the verge of putting together a new Palestinian government, following its election victory in January. The win prompted U.S. lawmakers to cut aid to the Palestinian territories. The United States and European Union say Hamas is a terrorist group.

Last month, the EU approved $140 million in short-term aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian territory to meet the basic needs of Palestinians. But the Europeans are also threatening to cut some assistance if Hamas does not renounce violence and recognize the state of Israel, among other stipulations.

European patience, says Michael Emerson, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, is running out. "There's very limited room and scope and time - as viewed from the European side - to go on testing or leaving the door open for the circumstances to be acceptable to continuing aid," he said. "We're in a kind of probationary period and it will run out. Things have to be clarified, one way or another."

Recent violence in the region has not helped matters. A number of Westerners were kidnapped in the Palestinian territories earlier this week in reprisal for an Israeli army raid of a Palestinian prison. Angry Palestinians have also attacked European buildings, including the British Council office in Gaza.

European officials have condemned both the Israeli raid and the Palestinian attacks. They warn some Palestinian aid may be cut if the attacks continue. Meanwhile, the quartet's special envoy, James Wolfensohn, has threatened to resign, saying he felt disenfranchised in trying to advance the peace process.