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Rice lobbies in Middle East on Hamas
Updated: 2006-02-22 11:30

After Hamas legislators were sworn into office on Saturday, the Israeli government voted to stop the transfer of about $50 million in monthly customs and tax revenue that it collects for the Palestinian Authority. That money is used to pay the salaries of about 138,000 Palestinian government employees, including 58,000 members of the security forces. Israeli officials have ruled out any dialogue with a Palestinian government led by Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings since the mid-1990s.

Rice faces a difficult task in convincing autocratic Arab regimes to isolate Hamas, since many Arab leaders blame the Islamic group's victory on the Bush administration's drive for democracy in the Middle East. Now, these leaders say, the United States must live with the results of its policies.

More than half of the Palestinian Authority's $2 billion annual budget comes from foreign donors, and the largest portions from Europe and the United States. About half the population in the Palestinian territories lives in poverty, and unemployment is more than 20 percent.

Some Arab officials are making a distinction between funding to Hamas and to the Palestinian population. "The aid must be destined for the Palestinian people and not for Hamas," said Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, which is trying to convince its 22 member states to make up for any funding lost due to Israel freezing tax transfers and cuts in foreign aid.

But Arab states have a poor track record of keeping their promises to fund the Palestinian cause. At a summit in 2002, Arab governments pledged to provide the Palestinian Authority with $50 million a month. Since then, Arab countries have sent a total of $760 million in aid, less than a third of the promised amount.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the worldwide Islamist movement that inspired the creation of Hamas in the 1980s, has asked its individual members to contribute a fifth of their income to support the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Hamas' top political leader, Khaled Mashaal, continued his tour of the Muslim world to solicit funding and build support. He met Tuesday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

"Since the divine treasures are infinite, you should not be concerned about economic issues," Ahmadinejad told the Hamas leader. "If you work for God, he will provide for you."

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