Congress is holding up $86 million that the Bush administration is seeking to strengthen the security forces of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a new setback for the administration's efforts in the region.
Administration officials say they want the money to ensure that the moderate Palestinian leader's security forces will not be overwhelmed by rivals from the militant movement Hamas, which has received pledges of $250 million in aid from Iran.
But Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has put a hold on the funding, saying she is not convinced the money will go to train and equip Abbas' security forces, as promised. Other lawmakers, including Democrats and Republicans, have voiced concern that the money could end up in the hands of Hamas.
The United States and other Western nations have cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority after the January 2006 parliamentary election victory of Hamas. The group does not recognize the state of Israel, has not renounced violence and has not fully committed to respecting past agreements between Palestinians and the Jewish state.
Further complicating the issue is a deal announced in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Feb. 8 under which Hamas and Fatah will share power in a new Palestinian "unity" government. Some lawmakers fear that shifting lines of authority in the Palestinian government could make it difficult for the U.S. to earmark money for the exclusive use of forces under Abbas' control.
The U.S. aid package is to go toward communications gear, uniforms and other equipment considered nonlethal, and toward hiring private contractors to train the forces. The aid will benefit both the 4,000-member Presidential Guard, and several thousand members of the larger national security forces, which also have been under Abbas' control.
Meanwhile, Egypt and Jordan are rounding out the needs of forces from Abbas' Fatah faction with ammunition and weapons.
The Israeli government, which plays a critical role, originally supported the idea of the aid program. Since the Mecca agreement, however, Israeli officials have become worried that some of the aid could end up helping Hamas.
Lowey began pressing the State Department for more details of the spending program in December, and placed a hold on the grant last month, because she believed she had not received the assurances she needed, aides say.
"It is imperative that we have a fuller understanding of exactly what the funding is for and what the situation is on the ground," Lowey said in a statement.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said at a House hearing last week that the subcommittee had "deep concern" about approving the money, because the Feb. 8 agreement to form a new government had made Hamas and Fatah a "joint venture."
"I would find it impossible to support any expenditure of funds without knowing how we make sure that those funds stay in the right hands and don't fall into the wrong hands," he said.
Other critics have complained that U.S. assistance might only intensify the fighting between the Hamas and Fatah forces. About 100 Palestinians have been killed in that fighting since December.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued that it was important not to halt support for Abbas.
"Hamas is going to continue to build its forces. I don't think we want to be in a position in which Hamas continues to build its forces and [Abbas] doesn't build his, because I don't know ultimately what will become of the Palestinian unity government," she told the panel last week. "I do know that if Hamas has strong forces and Mahmoud Abbas does not, that's not good for the United States, that's not good for the Palestinians, and it's most certainly not good for Israel."
Speaking Sunday in Israel, Rice said the U.S. wanted to continue cooperation with Abbas, but also recognized that it would need to prove to taxpayers that it would not be spending money on a government of which the United States disapproves.
"It obviously poses some complications," she said.