(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday militant Palestinians, not Israel, are to blame for deteriorating conditions in the sealed-off Gaza Strip, as the United States announced it intends to donate about $550 million to the impoverished Palestinians this year.
The US pledge would include $150 million in direct aid to the Palestinian government in the West Bank that, despite a history of corruption, is the US hope for new peace talks with Israel that US President George W. Bush launched last month in Annapolis, Maryland.
There is nothing for the rival Hamas leadership in Gaza, although US officials are quick to say that food and medical aid is up. The pledge was announced as Rice traveled to Paris for an international donors conference for the Palestinians on Monday.
US pledges of humanitarian relief for Gaza's 1.5 million people may be hollow unless Israel and Egypt ease border restrictions that are preventing some medical supplies and all but basic food and no-frills goods from getting in. Relief workers say some aid promised this year was blocked.
"The responsibility for what is happening in Gaza should be put directly on the shoulders of Hamas," Rice said as she flew to Paris.
Her remarks suggested that she will not pressure ally Israel to ease off, despite Gaza's plunge into deeper poverty.
"It is the policies of Hamas that have led to its own isolation and by implication the Gaza as well," Rice said.
Hamas seized control of the seaside territory in June, handing an embarrassing defeat to forces loyal to the US-backed Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. The US, Israel and the European Union regard Hamas as a terror group and refuse to deal with it.
Israel's six-month blockade of the strip, which it says is necessary for security reasons, has wiped out tens of thousands of jobs. Three-quarters of Gazans now live in poverty.
"There have been efforts to make certain that humanitarian assistance is getting through," Rice said. "We have worked very diligently with the Israelis," and outside aid groups, she added. "Of course we're very concerned, but let's put the blame where it should be, and that's on Hamas."
Rice cannot promise that she can deliver on the US aid pledge, which must be approved by the US Congress. The money includes about $400 million that the White House has already announced, but that has not yet been approved by Congress.
The US pledge would go toward a goal of $5.6 billion that the appointed West Bank prime minister, Salaam Fayad, hopes to raise over three years.