The EU handed the United Nations a check Monday for $78 million in urgent aid for destitute Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, but warned future aid is at risk unless their newly formed Hamas government commits to peace.
At a meeting, the EU foreign ministers discussed the future of the bloc's foreign aid program, worth more than $600 million a year, for Palestinians who will soon have a government led by Hamas.
The group won the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections but has been blacklisted by the EU as a terrorist group sworn to destroy Israel.
"Hamas is at a crossroads," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU presidency.
She said Hamas - which the EU considers a terrorist group - "will have to decide which road to take" for the sake of the well-being of the 4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said after Hamas' landslide win in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections aid to the Palestinians would continue, but said Hamas must meet international demands.
"We don't want to punish the Palestinian people for their votes at all," Straw told reporters.
"On the other hand the Palestinian people need to say to any Hamas government that democracy involves responsibilities and above all a responsibility not to get involved in violence."
Separately, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the Hamas government must recognize Israel, its past accords with Palestinians and commit to the 'road map' to Mideast peace drafted by the EU, the UN, the United States and Russia.
Future European aid hinges on "commitments the (Hamas) government enters into, and its deeds," said Ferrero-Waldner.
She said it was "crucial how the new Palestinian Authority positions itself on the questions of violence, of recognition of Israel and standing by previous (Israeli-Palestinian) agreements."
Ferrero-Waldner spoke at a ceremony at which she handed a check to Karen AbuZayed, the deputy chief of the UN Relief and Works Agency that provides education, health and social and other services for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The aid - half of a one-off, emergency deal agreed last month - is meant to help prevent the collapse of the destitute Palestinian Authority after Israel cut off about $50 million a month in tax money it collects for the Palestinians.
AbuZayed said the Palestinian Territories are experiencing critical supply shortages.
The EU check will pay notably for teachers' salaries and other expenses, easing the Palestinian authority's financial crunch for two months, said AbuZayed.
The emergence of an Islamic Hamas government may jeopardize up to 80 percent of the EU's $609 million annual aid for Palestinians, EU officials say.
To keep its aid program going, the EU has considered circumventing Hamas after it assumes power but has concluded that is not realistic.
"Most forms of external support require interaction with the Palestinian administration," Javier Solana, the EU security affairs chief, and Ferrero-Waldner said in a recent report.
It said dismal security in the Gaza Strip after Israel's withdrawal makes it "impossible to operate there without dealing directly with the Palestinian administration."