Rice blames Hamas for conditions in Gaza
PARIS - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that 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 $555 million to the impoverished Palestinians next year.
The US pledge would include $150 million in direct aid to the moderate-led Palestinian government in the West Bank that, despite a history of corruption, is the Bush administration's hope for new peace talks with Israel launched last month in Annapolis, Md.
There is nothing for the rival Hamas leadership in Gaza, although US officials are quick to say that food and medical aid to the area has increased.
But US pledges of humanitarian relief for Gaza's 1.5 million people may be hollow unless Israel and Egypt loosen 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.
Exports from Gaza have stopped, except for a few recent shipments of flowers and strawberries.
"The responsibility for what is happening in Gaza should be put directly on the shoulders of Hamas," Rice said as she flew to Paris for a gathering of world donors to the Palestinians.
Her remarks suggested that she will not pressure ally Israel to ease off, despite the erosion of Gaza into a beggar state.
"It is the policies of Hamas that have led to its own isolation," Rice said.
Israel, with US backing, is betting that it can squeeze Hamas by squeezing Gaza.
The goal is twofold: protect Israelis from militant rocket attacks and prod Hamas to drop its militant anti-Israel platform.
Some Palestinian leaders in Gaza say the policy amounts to improper collective punishment of civilians.
"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 she can deliver on the aid pledge, which must be approved by Congress.
The money includes about $400 million that the White House has already announced but that has not been approved by Congress.
The US pledge would go toward a goal of $5.6 billion that the appointed West Bank prime minister, Salam Fayyad, hopes to raise over three years.
Today's conference was organized by former British prime minister Tony Blair to rescue the tattered Palestinian economy and reinforce institutions that would become the backbone of any eventual independent Palestinian state.
The Palestinian plan formally covers both the West Bank and Gaza, but the focus is on the West Bank, run by Abbas. The two territories would together form the sovereign Palestinian state that is the goal of new peace talks.
Abbas has no control over Gaza, where about 200,000 people rallied Saturday to honor Hamas's founding 20 years ago. His elected position gives him authority to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, but in practice he speaks only for the larger and wealthier population in the West Bank.