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Israel Agrees to Aid Palestinians
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Israel on Wednesday accepted a decision by major Middle East peace brokers to resume aid payments to the Palestinian Authority -- a move that could ease the intense economic pressure on the Hamas-led government.

The Authority relies hugely on foreign aid to pay public sector salaries and run health and welfare services, and the mediating powers decided reluctantly on Tuesday that there was no other way to stave off a possible collapse into anarchy.

It was not clear whether they would find a way to channel funds through the overall Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, without having them administered by Hamas -- an Islamic militant group officially sworn to Israel's destruction.

But Israel, which had pushed hard and successfully for financial assistance to be severed after the Hamas-led administration took power in March, took the view that such a move would be possible.

"As far as we are concerned, the Quartet's decision to give further humanitarian support to the Palestinian Authority, bypassing the Hamas government, is definitely okay," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Army Radio.

The Hamas-led government said it appreciated the Quartet's efforts to ease the burden on the Palestinian people but added that they could have gone further.

In a statement, the government also criticized the prospect that it could be bypassed, saying: "We were hoping that their decision could be more positive in dealing with the Palestinian government since it is an elected government that represents the Palestinian people."

Russia, the European Union and the United Nations had all put pressure on the United States, which has taken the toughest stand against Hamas, to agree to ease the boycott.

The powers agreed that aid payments would be resumed for a three-month trial period, through a "transparent" mechanism that has yet to be worked out but may involve the World Bank.

It is expected that salaries to the Palestinian Authority's 165,000 employees, unpaid since March, will be settled. The monthly wage bill totals around US$150 million.

"If you need a hospital to be run, and someone has to be paid, he will be paid," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said after the initiative was announced.

Humanitarian aid
The decision would appear to reflect a view held by UN officials that payment of salaries amounts to humanitarian support for the largely impoverished Palestinian population. Humanitarian support was never intended to be cut off.

Local, regional and international banks have stopped dealing with the Palestinian Authority because they fear sanctions by the United States, which classes Hamas as a terrorist group.

Israel is also withholding around US$55 million a month in tax receipts that it collects on the Palestinians' behalf, and has frequently closed the main commercial goods terminal on its border with Gaza, citing security concerns.

Western powers have called on Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by existing peace agreements if it wants contacts to resume, but Hamas signaled on Wednesday that it was no closer to accepting those demands.

Hamas has largely abided by a ceasefire for over a year but says talks with the Jewish state would be a waste of time.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas, said the conditions "aim to push the Palestinian government to make concessions that harm (Palestinian) rights and red lines and give the (Israeli) occupation legitimacy."

If peacemaking with the Palestinians remains frozen, Israel has pledged to set its own borders by 2010 -- taking in the major Jewish settlements that cover large parts of the occupied West Bank while removing smaller, isolated ones.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Tuesday he might wait up to six months to see if progress could be made on peace before taking such unilateral steps. Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Army Radio on Wednesday that once Israel decided to go forward alone, "final borders" could be set as soon as the end of 2008.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies May 11, 2006)

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