October 15, 2006
By Diaa Hadid
A $42 million American program aimed at bolstering Palestinian opposition to Hamas has added more mistrust to the strained and increasingly bloody relations between the ruling Islamic group and the rival Fatah Party, both sides say.
Hamas is accusing Fatah of acting as Washington‘s stooge in the region, further diminishing hopes that the two Palestinian groups can form a unity government.
The U.S. State Department set aside the funds last spring after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections. The money, meant to “protect and promote moderation and democratic alternatives to Hamas,” is among hundreds of millions of dollars in funds the U.S. has allocated to bypass Hamas and help ordinary Palestinians.
The U.S., along with other Western donor nations, cut off funds to the Hamas-led government after the group took power in March, listing Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas continues to reject international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel‘s right to exist, despite widespread hardship caused by the sanctions.
Although U.S. officials say none of the $42 million has been spent yet, Hamas officials accused Washington of meddling in Palestinian affairs. Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil said the “American financing” is clearly meant to return Fatah, which dominated Palestinian politics for four decades, to power.
“America is trying to consolidate its idea of a crusade launched by (President) Bush, and they want tools for this war,” Bardawil said.
Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, said the U.S. does not send any money directly to Palestinian political parties. Instead, it provides funding and expertise to nonprofit groups, including those with ties to political parties not branded as terrorist groups.
“We build their capacity to make them more capable of participating in elections,” Schweitzer-Bluhm said.
Hamas appears on the U.S. list of terrorist groups; Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, does not. The U.S. has embraced Abbas, a moderate elected separately last year, as a viable negotiating partner.
Still, Schweitzer-Bluhm said it was “misconstruction” to say that U.S. is trying to topple Hamas.
Fatah officials have sought to distance their party from the U.S., which is widely viewed by Palestinians as biased toward Israel.
Fatah spokesman Mohammed Hourani said the party does not accept American money. “It (Fatah) refuses any aid from the U.S., whom we consider an unfair mediator,” he said.
“This news harms the reputation of the movement and Hamas is exploiting this to attack us,” said Ahmad Abdul Rahman, another Fatah official.
However, many nonprofit groups dominated by Fatah receive American funds, including sports clubs, research centers, relief organizations, and local councils in villages and towns.
The tensions have added another obstacle to negotiations between Fatah and Hamas on forming a unity government. Abbas believes a partnership will force Hamas to moderate its views and help get crippling economic sanctions lifted.
While Hamas has been agreeable to the idea, talks have been stalled for weeks over Hamas‘ refusal to recognize Israel.
The tensions have spilled over into violence. At least 12 people were killed in clashes earlier this month, and the killing of a Hamas leader in the northern Gaza Strip last week sparked several days of gunfights. One person was slightly wounded in the latest fighting on Sunday, Hamas officials said.
During a visit to Jordan, Abbas expressed regret for the continuing differences with Hamas and said there is still a chance for unity talks.
“Regretfully, the differences are still there,” Abbas said following talks with Jordan‘s King Abdullah II in the Jordanian capital. “Efforts for forming a national unity government are still present.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development, the main channel for overseas aid, requires recipients to sign a document agreeing not to make any contact with Hamas officials.
Abdul Rahman Abu Arafeh, director of a West Bank nonprofit group that tries to promote democracy in the Palestinian areas, said the requirements are so stringent that he has turned down American funding. In the past, his group, the Arab Thought Forum, has accepted USAID funding.
“We turned it down on principle,” Abu Arafeh said.
Source: ASSOCIATED PRESS