U.S. Cuts Aid Plan for Palestinian Security Forces

By David Gollust

WASHINGTON (VOA) — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress the Bush administration is reducing a proposed aid package for Palestinian security forces. There had been concern in Congress that some U.S. funds might have end up in the hands of the militant Islamic movement Hamas.

The Bush administration originally asked for $86 million for training and other non-lethal aid for security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

But following the advent of the new Palestinian unity government bringing together Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ mainstream Fatah party, the aid plan is being trimmed back to about $50 million and focused on the Abbas presidential guard.

Secretary Rice disclosed the move in an appearance before a House appropriations subcommittee, which had frozen the initial request out of concern that some of the security aid might benefit Hamas, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist group.

Rice said the package is being reduced to better assure transparency and accountability for the U.S. money, but she said the administration still considers it essential to counter the strength of Hamas and other Palestinian radicals:

"I believe very strongly that we do need to support development of security forces that are loyal to those that accept the Quartet principles, because I’m quite certain that those who do not accept it will continue to build their security forces," said Condoleezza Rice.

The new Palestinian government, like its Hamas-led predecessor, has refused to explicitly accept Israel’s right to exist and renounce terrorism as demanded by the Quartet – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Israel has refused to deal with the new government. But in a split with its ally, the United States says it will have contacts with non-Hamas members of the cabinet, among them the U.S.-educated Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

The move has drawn some congressional criticism but Rice defended it in her subcommittee testimony:

"We will nonetheless not suspend our contacts with those in the Palestinian government who have a record of fighting for peace," she said. "I think that keeps a way to continue to influence the development of this Palestinian unity government. And we will of course continue to work with Abu Mazen who is himself committed to this cause."

There are also differences among Quartet members about contacts with the unity government, with Moscow long having direct discussions with holdover Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

Secretary Rice and other principals of the Quartet spoke by telephone on the new government. But it took some 48 hours to come up with a joint statement on the conference call, with officials here citing disputes over wording.

The statement issued said the Quartet reaffirmed its previous pronouncements on the need for a Palestinian government committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements, including the Quartet’s 2003 peace road map.

But it also said the new government will be measured not only on the basis of its composition and platform but also its actions.

That formulation reflected a statement by chief diplomat Javier Solana of the European Union, and a belief among some European officials that Hamas should be credited for largely refraining from acts of anti-Israel violence since entering government early last year.