The Bush administration said Friday it will review all aspects of the U.S. aid program to the Palestinians if, as expected, the militant Islamic group Hamas controls the next Palestinian government. U.S. law bars provision of any funds to terrorist organizations.
Officials insist the aid review is not a threat, or punishment for the Palestinian people for voting for Hamas, but rather a requirement under laws barring U.S. aid to terrorist organizations.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the review will apply to all facets of U.S. aid to the Palestinians that last year totaled nearly $400 million.
The United States has traditionally been the single-largest aid donor to the Palestinians, most of it in past years channeled through non-governmental organizations and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.
Spokesman McCormack said the United States and other governments recognize Palestinian needs, but that the probable emergence of a Hamas-run government poses a unprecedented dilemma for donors:
"The international community understands that the Palestinian people have humanitarian needs," he said. "They are poor people. But let us be very clear: the law and policy of the United States is that we do not provide funding, money to terrorist organizations. Hamas is a terrorist organization. So if any future Palestinian government wishes to engage in peaceful development, that must take place at the international level in the context of the requirements of the international community."
The spokesman said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss the aid issue and other implications of the Hamas election victory in a meeting of the Middle East "Quartet" - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - next Monday in London.
McCormack said U.S. officials hope to reach a "common understanding" with the European Union on how to proceed on the aid issue, though stressing that any decision to follow the United States' lead with a review is for the Europeans to make.
Rice held a telephone conference call with her Quartet partners Thursday, including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The four parties, sponsors of the international "road map" to Middle East peace, said in a joint statement later that there is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic state.
They said the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel's right to exist, and disarm as outlined in the road map.
Spokesman McCormack gave no time-frame for the U.S. aid review and said the United States will continue dealing with Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas and, at least for the time-being, with the caretaker Palestinian cabinet.
Administration officials from President Bush on down have made clear since the election outcome became apparent that there would be no change in the policy of refusing to deal with Hamas.
Last year's U.S. aid to the Palestinians included a one-time payment of $70 million to the Palestinian Authority to help it deal with a financial crisis and pay long-overdue electricity bills to Israel.
The current aid program totals more than $230 million, more than a third of that for the U.N. refugee agency. Spokesman McCormack said only part of this year's money, for the 2006 fiscal year, has actually been delivered and spent.