April 4, 2006

US looks to increase Palestinian humanitarian aid

By Saul Hudson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States wants to increase
humanitarian assistance to Palestinians and help them control
an outbreak of bird flu even though it will not give aid to a
Hamas-led government, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said
on Tuesday.

Rice is close to concluding a review of U.S. aid to
Palestinians as she seeks to balance efforts to prevent
suffering among Palestinians while avoiding any U.S. dealings
with Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group
despite having won a parliamentary election in January.

"One thing we are reviewing is how we can even increase our
humanitarian assistance because we don't want to send a
negative message to the Palestinian people about their
humanitarian needs," Rice told a congressional budget hearing.

The United States hopes to isolate Hamas and pressure it to
recognize American ally Israel, renounce violence and abide by
peace accords. So far the Islamic militant group has refused,
although its leaders have said they would continue to observe a
ceasefire with Israel.

The United States has banned its officials and contractors
from having contact with Palestinian ministries after a
Hamas-led government was sworn in late last month facing a
budget crisis.

The order could complicate Rice's plan to help Palestinians
combat the deadly bird flu virus, which has spread from Asia to
the Middle East, Europe and Africa in recent months.

It was not immediately clear if Rice would make an
exception to allow some U.S. coordination over bird flu with
Palestinian officials in a Hamas-led government.

"I can assure you that we are doing everything that we can
to avoid any assistance to the Palestinian government that is
Hamas-led," she said. "I might note that the only time that
emergency situations -- for instance we are dealing right now
with an avian flu outbreak in the Palestinian territories. I
think we will want to do whatever is necessary to deal with
that avian flu outbreak."

In Israel, which has taken the same no-contact policy with
Hamas as the United States, health and agriculture officials
initially had coordinated over bird flu with low-level
Palestinian officials. But this week Israel decided such
coordination should be done only through U.N. agencies or
nongovernmental groups.

Mostly through such groups, the United States has given
$1.5 billion in aid to the Palestinians in the last decade. The
Bush administration has also given some financial assistance
directly to the Palestinian Authority.

Before Hamas won the January election, the Bush
administration had decided to request $150 million from
Congress for this year's budget for the Palestinians, to be
given in direct aid to the government and humanitarian

But after the election, Rice said the administration would
review its plans.