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Israel to Release Funds to Palestinians

Israel agreed to release tens of millions of dollars to agencies working to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories. Israel says it is also considering easing restrictions at the main cargo crossing point into the Gaza Strip.

Israel says it will join the so-called Middle East Peace Quartet efforts to ease a growing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories by releasing some of the customs and tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Earlier this week the Quartet, made up of Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the United States agreed to establish a temporary financial mechanism that would funnel aid to Palestinians, while bypassing the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority.

Israel says it will join the effort. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says Israel will release an unspecified amount of money it has collected in the form of tax and customs revenue for humanitarian purposes.

Livni says the money may be used to pay electricity and water bills to keep hospitals functioning, as well as for medicines and other health services.

Israel's Foreign minister says Israel will not allow any of the money it has collected to go directly to the Palestinian Authority, or to pay the salaries of Palestinian Authority employees.

Israel normally collects about $50 million a month in customs and tax revenue and nearly all the money has in the past gone to paying the salaries of an estimated 150,000 Palestinian Authority employees.

They have now gone more than two months without being paid, since Israel froze the money transfers following the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority.

In a related development, Israel's new Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who also heads the center-left Labor Party, says he is considering easing restrictions at the Karni crossing point into Gaza, the main transshipment point for goods crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Israeli officials have kept Karni closed for much of this year, citing security threats.