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US Reaffirms Ban on Contacts With Hamas

The Bush administration said Wednesday a U.S. policy barring contacts with Hamas will remain in place, now that a Palestinian government led by the militant Islamic group has assumed power. The development means a cutoff of U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority, but the State Department said humanitarian aid to Palestinians will increase.

The State Department says the terms of U.S. policy with regard to contacts with Palestinian officials, now that the Hamas-led government has been sworn in, are still being refined.

But it is making clear that American diplomats and other officials will have no dealings with Hamas members, regardless of what position they may hold in the new Palestinian administration.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that while a uniform policy is being drafted, U.S. diplomats intending to meet Palestinians have been instructed to review their plans with the American Consulate in Jerusalem, which handles relations with the Palestinians.

He said the United States will continue to deal with Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas of the mainstream Fatah movement and non-Hamas Palestinian legislators.

But he said contacts with Hamas members are out of the question, because the organization has refused to accept Israel's right to exist and other international terms for acceptance, and is listed by the United States as a terrorist organization.

"Hamas now is leading a government and they have refused to meet the conditions laid out by the international community," he explained. "Also, the United States, as an individual country, has certain laws that U.S. officials must abide by. And part of those laws say that we will not deal with a member of a terrorist organization. So we will not have contact with members of Hamas, no matter what title they may have."

Spokesman McCormack said a review of U.S. aid policy toward the Palestinians, begun after the Hamas election victory in January, is substantially complete.

It has already been determined that direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority will cease, and the United States asked for and received a refund of unspent funds from a $50 million allocation to the authority last year.

But McCormack said American humanitarian aid, traditionally channeled through the United Nations and non-governmental groups, will continue and actually be increased, though he provided no details.

The U.S. aid program for Palestinians for the current fiscal year totals about $150 million, about half of it earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.

With the new Palestinian government installed, and Israeli elections completed, the Bush administration is sending two senior envoys to the region this week to assess the situation.

McCormack said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch was already en route to the area and would be joined shortly by the White House National Security Council's chief Middle East policy official, Elliott Abrams.