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(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is embarking Monday on a five-day Middle East visit aimed at ensuring that Arab countries do not provide financial aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and strengthening the international front against the Hamas.
After an initial decision not to provide direct funds to the Hamas government and to review existing aid programs to the Palestinians, the US is now moving forward with closing possible loopholes that would enable international money to get into Hamas's hands.
On Friday, the State Department announced that the US is demanding the PA return $50 million received during the past year to fund infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip following disengagement. According to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, the PA agreed to give back the funds, which will undergo review by the US.
"In the interests of seeing that these funds do not potentially make their way into the coffers of a future Palestinian government, we have asked for it to be returned and the Palestinian Authority has agreed," McCormack said in his daily press briefing.
In addition to blocking any American funds from reaching the PA, the US is also intensifying its efforts to make sure other countries do not fill the financial gap left by the US.
The increased US pressure to cut funding to the PA does not include funds directed at humanitarian aid projects, which the administration would like to see continued.
While in the past month the US lobbied Arab countries to keep up the assistance to the Mahmoud Abbas-led cabinet, now it is urging these countries to stop all non-humanitarian funding, since it will be used to support a Hamas government.
The US is aware that stopping foreign aid might lead to a situation in which the PA cannot pay salaries to public sector workers, but it sees this move as a needed step to pressure Hamas.
"The Palestinian need for resources is a lot, by most estimates $1.9 billion a year," Rice said on Friday, "It will be interesting to see if that can be gotten from states that are not committed to the peace process."
Rice will stress in her upcoming meetings in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt that Arab countries should join the international community in stopping direct cash flow to the PA until Hamas recognizes Israel and stops terror.
"I would hope that any state that is considering funding Hamas, a Hamas-led government, would think about the implications of that for the Middle East," Rice said Friday to a group of Arab journalists in Washington.
Rice will also underline in her conversations that once Hamas forms the PA cabinet, any passing of direct funds to the PA could be seen as breaking the US-led global war against funding terror, which was designed originally to stop the funding of al-Qaida.
The main problem facing the US on this issue is Iran, which does not adhere to these global rules. Rice warned Iran Friday not to enter a collision course with the international community on this issue, stating that Iran "might want to think twice" before enhancing its troubled relationship with the world.
While the US is focusing now on stopping the cash flow to the PA, it is also calling upon countries to limit their ties with Hamas and to use these meetings only to stress the demands the organization has to accept before becoming a legitimate partner.
The American attempt to block all diplomatic ties with Hamas has failed, after Russia, Turkey and the Arab states invited Hamas leaders and held discussions with them.