(photo credit: Associated Press)
European Union foreign ministers could threaten to freeze much needed financial aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government at talks Monday if the Islamic group fails to give up violence and its pursuit of Israel's destruction.
Monday's talks provide the first opportunity for EU ministers to get a chance to react as a group to last week's surprise victory in Palestinian legislative elections by Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings.
Like other international donors, the 25-nation EU is questioning whether it can continue its multimillion euro aid to a government that looks likely to be led by Hamas, which remains on an EU blacklist of terrorist groups.
EU diplomats said the foreign ministers were expected to call on Hamas to drop its armed wing and to recognize the state of Israel. The ministers are also expected to issue a declaration "stressing that violence and terror are not compatible with democratic processes."
Hamas refuses to disarm or recognize Israel, though it has hinted that it could reach a long-term truce or other accommodation with the Jewish state. Since a cease-fire declaration last February, Hamas has not claimed involvement in any suicide attacks.
On a short visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced widespread European demands Sunday that Hamas change its ways, or suffer from having the financial lifeline to the already cash-strapped Palestinian Authority frozen.
Merkel said Germany would study Hamas' behavior, but she added that it was "unthinkable" for Germany and the European Union to give financial support to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority that does not recognize Israel or renounce violence.
The EU faces tough decisions at Monday's talks, mindful that cutting off aid to the Palestinian government could lead to more chaos there.
Diplomats said EU foreign ministers were unlikely to drop the Islamic group from the EU's list of terrorist groups on Monday, a status that bans any official contact with Hamas. That raises questions over how the bloc will try to communicate with the new government.
This year, aid to the Palestinians from the European Commission alone will total around â‚¬250 million (US$304 million), but will mostly be channeled through UN relief agencies and independent aid groups. Individual EU member states also make separate aid contributions.
Monday's talks were to start just before a separate meeting the same day of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators - the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the EU. Top officials at that meeting, to be held in London, will discuss whether Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts can be salvaged after Hamas' election victory.
The Quartet - which developed the "road map" plan designed to steer Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks - is also to review the financial aid its members give to the Palestinians. US President George W. Bush said Friday that Washington would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas abolishes its party's militant arm and stops demanding the destruction of Israel.
Officials said the EU had given â‚¬280 million (US$341 million) in aid to the Palestinians last year, â‚¬70 million (US$85 million) of which was given to the multi-donor fund set up by the World Bank for the Palestinian Authority.
Only half of that â‚¬70 million was released however, as the Palestinians failed to meet certain reform "benchmarks," officials said.
EU lawmakers at the European Parliament have already warned that if Hamas does not change its ways, it would seek to block aid this year.
Monday's EU talks will also reiterate calls on Iran to cease its uranium enrichment plans, which the EU and others fear could be used to build nuclear weapons. Iran insists its uranium enrichment program is only intended to produce fuel for nuclear reactors to generate electricity.