Israel says releasing $100m to Abbas

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said it would free $100 million in frozen tax funds later Thursday to boost moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — the first Israeli payment since Hamas won legislative elections and took office last year.

The move came two days before Abbas headed to Syria for talks with the top Hamas leader to forge a unity government aimed at ending a punishing international aid boycott. The talks have sputtered for months amid deadly clashes between forces loyal to the two sides, killing 35 people, but the fact that Abbas was meeting Khaled Mishaal of Hamas was a sign that an agreement might be finally at hand, though key obstacles remained.

The $100 million is part of the tax money Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority under partial peace accords, including customs and value-added tax.

Israel halted transfer of the funds when Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament and set up its Cabinet in March 2006.

Israel said it could not feed money to a Hamas-led government, labelling Hamas a terror group because of its history of dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis over the past decade, killing hundreds. The US and European Union joined in the boycott, halting the foreign aid that has kept the Palestinian Authority afloat since it was created in 1994. The funding freeze has caused widespread hardships in the West Bank and Gaza.

An Israeli official said the money would be transferred directly to Abbas for use in humanitarian efforts and to boost his own security force, the Presidential Guard. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been made public, said Israel was satisfied by assurances that the money would not go to the Palestinian finance ministry, which is controlled by Hamas.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is close to Abbas, welcomed the Israeli move but noted the money belongs to the Palestinians in the first place. “We hope the Israelis will release all the withheld funds,” he told the Associated Press. “This is about 25 per cent of the total they owe us.” Acting Finance Minister Samir Abu Aishah of Hamas said the government should decide how the money is spent.

“This is supposed to be spent according to Palestinian priorities. It is not for Israel to determine where it goes,” he said.

Israel has been trying to boost Abbas in his struggle with Hamas, which rejects the existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East. However, such efforts can backfire, as Palestinians of all stripes try to distance themselves from the Israelis. A recent report that Israel had approved an arms shipment for Abbas’ forces drew angry denials, but witnesses saw weapons fall off a truck.

Abbas was due in Damascus on Saturday, where he was to meet Mishaal for the first time in years. Abbas’ Fateh and Hamas are bitter enemies — their efforts to form a unity government must overcome deep ideological and political divides.

Only the hardships caused by the Western aid cutoff has pushed them together, forcing them to look for formulas each party could live with — while satisfying Western demands that the Palestinian government recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace accords. So far Hamas has refused.

Negotiator Ziad Abu Amr, an independent lawmaker with ties to both factions, said Abbas and Mishaal would try to put the finishing touches to a deal at a meeting in the Syrian capital on Saturday.

“There are issues we have agreed upon and issues that still need agreement, but we are continuing our efforts and did not reach a deadlock,” Abu Amr said.

Nimer Hamad, an Abbas political adviser, confirmed the planned meeting, but said two key obstacles to a coalition government remain: Hamas reluctance to accept a political platform that implicitly recognises Israel, and control of the Interior ministry, which oversees the Palestinians’ 85,000 security officers. Previous coalition talks have foundered over these issues.

Ahmed Youssef, political adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said he was confident the distribution of posts would be resolved at the Damascus meeting.

In Cairo, Hamas spokesman Mohammad Nazal also confirmed that the meeting would take place and told the AP that Hamas is ready to form a unity government afterward.

Also Thursday, Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defence minister, said Israel and the Palestinians can wrap up a final peace deal within two years, but the international climate for such talks might not remain favourable for long.

Sneh and Defence Minister Amir Peretz recently published a peace plan with a two-year framework.

Sneh was speaking at an academic conference at the Israeli seaside city of Netanya. “We have an opportunity, but I don’t know for how long will it last,” he said. “We have to do it very, very quickly.”

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