Friday, February 03, 2006

Lawmakers push bill to cut aid to Palestinians

Lawmakers push bill to cut aid to Palestinians

By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of House of Representatives members introduced legislation on Thursday to halt U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority because the militant group Hamas, dedicated to destroying Israel, was expected to form a new Palestinian government.

The main sponsors of the bill, which would take a tougher stance than the Bush administration, said they expected it to get broad support in the wake of Hamas' stunning victory in Palestinian elections over the Fatah party.

Aid and diplomatic relations would be restored under the bill if Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist, renounces terrorism, and lays down its arms.

"We've got to make sure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not used to assist directly or indirectly those who are carrying out terrorist attacks or those who allow these attacks to continue by doing nothing to stop terror," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.

Beside cutting off direct aid, the bill would restrict non-humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians through non-governmental organizations, cut diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian Authority and treat it as a terrorist entity, close its offices in the United States other than its United Nations representative, and limit travel of its representatives.

The bill also would withhold U.S. funds to the United Nations equal to the amount the world body provides the Palestinians.

The Bush administration has said Hamas' role in a Palestinian government threatened U.S. aid, although it has urged the aid continue to an interim government.


For 2006, the United States has budgeted $150 million in assistance to the Palestinians, and a further $84 million to the U.N. fund.

Ros-Lehtinen and California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos at a news conference said the bill, which had 30 co-sponsors, showed the determination in Congress to confront Hamas.

"Our desire to continue humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people will of course continue," said Lantos, top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

"But the notion that an organization which is hell-bent on destroying the one democratic state in the Middle East should be receiving ... assistance from the United States is unacceptable," Lantos said.

Congressional aides said the White House recognized the pressure building among lawmakers to take action in the wake of the Palestinian elections.

But they said the administration wanted the bill to provide President George W. Bush broad discretion to waive provisions, while lawmakers wanted the waivers on a tight case-by-case basis.

"Any time you get this kind of legislation that proposes restrictions on the president's ability to conduct foreign policy you're always going to bump into balance of power issues," said a State Department official, who did not want to be named to avoid upsetting ongoing negotiations with lawmakers on the bill.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert)