Only a week after Hamas’ stunning landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative election, cracks began to emerge in the international community’s initial threat to halt nearly $1 billion in Palestinian aid unless Hamas stopped its use of violence and recognized Israel’s right to exist.
The aid is critical because the Palestinian Authority ran out of money last month to pay its 137,000 civil servants.
"There is the desire on the part of many in Europe to find a way to continue with some kind of engagement for humanitarian purposes," Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said after meeting Tuesday with European leaders in Brussels.
"Already in the last couple of days I have heard the [West’s] call for the disarming of Hamas fall by the wayside," he added. Evidence of erosion in the unified stance against Hamas came in a press conference Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Refusal of aid to the Palestinian people would be a mistake in any event," he said.
And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. was looking for a way to provide funds to the Palestinian people on humanitarian grounds on a "case-by-case basis." She stressed that no aid would go directly to Hamas (which the U.S. and Europe label a terrorist group) but that the U.S. would make good on the aid already promised to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In contrast, the Israeli government said it would immediately suspend the monthly transfer of $45 to $55 million in customs duties and value-added taxes it collects at Israeli ports for the Palestinian Authority.
"We are not going to transfer it because the fear is that whatever money they get will be used for terrorism," said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York.
Asked about those who suggest the suspension is just temporary because the money is not Israel’s to withhold, Mekel replied: "They don’t understand our resolve. These people [Hamas] don’t recognize the right of Israel to exist and want to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth and create an Islamic regime here."
Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the withdrawal of international aid could result in a "total collapse" of Palestinian society.
"The PA is totally bankrupt and can’t provide the most minimal services to the public and for salaries," he said by phone from Paris. (Exit polls found that more than 45 percent of Palestinian voters named corruption by the ruling Fatah party and its inability to impose law and order as the two key factors in their decision to vote for Hamas.)
The Palestinian Authority last year had an operating budget of $1.96 billion, nearly two-thirds of which comes from international donors primarily from Europe, international donor agencies, Asian governments and the U.S., which last year gave the PA $70 million. But last month, the PA was functionally bankrupt, having amassed a deficit of $69 million in January alone.
On Tuesday, Javier Solana, the European Unionís foreign policy chief, was quoted as saying that once Hamas establishes a new government "it would be very difficult for the EU to continue funding the Palestinian Authority" if it did not renounce violence and recognize Israel.
The initial reaction from Hamas leaders was one of defiance. Mahmoud Zahar was quoted by the Middle East Media Research Institute as saying that his organization wanted to establish a Palestinian state on all of Palestine "from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River …. We cannot give up a single inch of it. Therefore, we will not recognize the Israeli enemy’s [right] to a single inch." He added that Hamas would ìnot give up the resistance in the sense of jihad, martyrdom-seeking, sacrifices, arrests…"
Siegman warned that if the West terminated its assistance, the only recourse for Hamas would be to "turn to countries like Iran, and the consequence of that politically for the West is not desirable. … That is the last thing everyone should want. The U.S. and the Europeans don’t want it, and that is why I believe they are likely to find a way within the next four to eight weeks of getting humanitarian aid there through third parties like NGOs [non-governmental organizations]."
The Palestinian Authority needs about $116 million each month to cover its payroll and has reportedly borrowed from banks to meet those expenses. But the Palestinian cabinet secretary, Samir Hleileh, was quoted as saying the banks were unlikely to make further loans. In the meantime, Hamas leaders are reportedly said to be turning to the Muslim world for financial assistance. Islamic charities, private donors and NGOs have in the past provided financial help to Hamas in amounts some believe total in the millions each year. And Iran is believed to be the principle financier of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he does not believe Hamas would be able to make up its shortfall from Iran alone. "Iran doesn’t have billions to throw around," he said. Besides, Steinberg said, getting such huge amounts of money to the Palestinians would not be easy. "Money is flexible and flows quickly, but we;re talking about a large amount of money to specific institutions," he said.
"I wouldn’t count out the Europeans from continuing funding while Hamas tries to say the right things and keep the PLO facade," Steinberg added. "But if the Europeans continue funding and there is terrorism, the Europeans would stop their funding and Hamas is aware of that."
The Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Israeli military officer Tuesday as saying Hamas was continuing attempts to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel and that seven of its members had been arrested that day alone.
And the Al-Aksa Martryrs Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah Party that was defeated by Hamas in last week’s election, vowed Monday to step up its "resistance to the Zionist occupier … until all Palestinian land is liberated from the defilement of the occupation."
On Wednesday, they and Islamic Jihad, another terrorist group, claimed to have fired two missiles at an Israeli naval ship in the Mediterranean. Israeli officials said they were unaware of such an attack, which would be the first since Hamas won the election.
Isaacson of the American Jewish Committee said he was in Brussels to meet with European foreign ministers and their deputies and tell them that his organization believes they must use financial aid as leverage to get Hamas to change. He said this is the time for the international community to send Hamas "the most unambiguous message that there can be no continuation of aid as usual and of cooperation as usual without an entirely transformed message from Hamas."
"This is the time for the United States and Europe to lay down the firmest possible line and throw the ball back in its court," Isaacson added. "Before we start figure out compromises of our principles, let’s stick to our principles. Let’s not make deals with ourselves rather than requiring Hamas to deal with the reality."
On Wednesday, Egypt added its voice to the international call for Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce violence and recognize all prior agreements made by the Palestinian Authority. Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, also told reporters in Cairo that he hoped Hamas would one day open negotiations with Israel but that he believed that would take a long time.
"They are radicals," he reportedly said of Hamas, "and it will be difficult to convince them to do a 180."
Should international aid dry up, "Israel will be responsible as the occupying power," according to Rashid Khalidi, a political science professor at Columbia University.
"There is not a government in the West Bank or Gaza Strip," he argued. "There is an illusion that there is a self-governing body. It is not and … ultimately the responsibility for the Palestinians" falls on Israel.
But Gadi Sheffer, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, disagreed and said he doubted that Israel "would give money out of its own pocket to the Palestinians."
He said also that he believed the international community would continue funding the Palestinians in the form of humanitarian aid.