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U.S. bolsters Abbas with aid to Palestinians

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration moved quickly Monday to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas consolidate his hold on the West Bank, renewing millions of dollars of aid that will be parceled out by his Fatah-led government.

In an effort to work around Abbas’ militant Hamas rivals who now control the Gaza Strip, the administration will make additional money available through the United Nations for refugee relief, mainly for the 1.5 million Palestinians who inhabit the troubled coastal strip.

The announcements came a day after Abbas declared the Hamas-led Palestinian Parliament powerless and named an emergency Cabinet that included no members of the Islamist group, which seized Gaza last week after a series of violent battles with Fatah forces.

Both the United States and the European Union halted assistance to the Palestinian Authority in early 2006, after Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Parliament. The election result forced Abbas into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with Hamas, which the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization.

The European Union also said Monday that it would restore assistance to the Palestinians.

But complicating Hamas’ efforts to provide services in Gaza, most of the renewed assistance will go to the West Bank, where Fatah remains in charge. U.S. and Israeli officials said they would treat the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as separate entities.

While administration officials presented the resumption of assistance as simply an effort to aid the Palestinian people, experts outside government saw it as an attempt to take advantage of the division between the two factions – boosting Fatah and encouraging dissatisfaction with Hamas, which continues to call for Israel’s destruction.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disclosed the resumption of the aid and what she called “normal government-to-government contacts” with the Palestinian Authority in a telephone call to the new Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, whom Abbas appointed over the weekend.

President Bush is scheduled to meet today at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“We’re at a critical juncture for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” Rice said at a State Department news conference.

She said that the administration would work with Congress on what had been a frozen request for $86 million in assistance for the Palestinians and that it would make available to the United Nations an additional $40 million for refugee relief, targeted mainly at Gaza residents.


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