Senior lawmakers from both parties Sunday threw their support behind President Bush’s pledge to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority until the militant Islamic group Hamas renounces terrorism and its commitment to the destruction of Israel.
The leader of Hamas said the Palestinian government would ask Islamic nations for help if Western aid dried up, raising the specter that Iran’s influence could increase.
The statements by members of Congress came days after Hamas’ landslide victory in parliamentary elections caught the Bush administration and European governments off guard.
“The United States Congress will not be giving money to a government that supports terrorism, that refuses to disarm its militias, that has as its goal in its charter the destruction of Israel,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed Frist’s stance.
“Unless they change their stripes ... I think we do exactly what the president says. We do not deal with them. Not a penny,” he said on CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer.”
Congress has earmarked $150 million for the Palestinians this year, much of it for nongovernmental organizations rebuilding the shattered infrastructure in the Palestinian territories. U.S. law prohibits Congress from funding any organization classified as terrorist, as Hamas is. In an interview Friday with CBS News, Bush warned that unless Hamas renounced violence, “aid packages won’t go forward.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to London, told reporters Sunday, “The United States is not prepared to fund an organization that advocates the destruction of Israel, that advocates violence and that refuses its obligations” under an international framework for Middle East peace talks. She added that some humanitarian aid would be considered on a “case by case basis,” Associated Press reported.
Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas figure, refused Sunday to back down from his group’s long-standing positions on Israel, and said Hamas would find new sources of funding if the Bush administration and European governments withdrew their financial support.
“We’ll be able to open a new channel through our other Arabic and Islamic and international community, to help the Palestinian people without condition,” Zahar told “Late Edition.” He added, “We are looking for this money, but this money should not be conditioned.”
Some experts said that many Muslim countries would find it politically risky to fund a Hamas-led government.
“There are a lot of oil-rich states, but the question is: Who is going to be willing to share their windfall profits with Hamas?” said Nathan Brown, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the past, Hamas has been able to rely on wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf’s Arab states to finance many of its activities, though some experts point out that such funds would hardly be sufficient to keep a government running.
Palestinians receive about $900 million annually in foreign aid, about a third of it from European countries. Some in Washington are concerned that European governments may be hesitant to use humanitarian aid as leverage for political change.
Amid the harsh talk Sunday, one Republican senator warned that a decision by the United States, European nations and Israel to cut off funding for the Palestinians could push the Palestinian Authority closer to Iran.
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) called such an outcome “likely,” despite ethnic and religious differences between the Iranians and the Palestinians. Palestinians are Arabs and follow the Sunni sect of Islam, whereas Iranians are Persians and Shiite Muslims.
Yet Hamas and the government in Tehran share a stated goal of destroying Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last year that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
Hamas and Iran, Brown said, “probably see each other as natural allies.”
Times wire services were used in compiling this report