WASHINGTON: News that US President Barack Obama has asked Congress to allow continued aid to the Palestinians even if Hamas were to become part of a unity government is causing reverberations. Supporters of Palestinian autonomy and human rights are cheering the move while some politicians are expressing the kind of reserve that appeals to their constituencies.
The administration appears to be recognizing what its predecessor did not: Negotiating a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, or even distributing much-needed aid to the people in Gaza, would be difficult without engaging Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006, said The Los Angeles Times yesterday.
Almost immediately, some lawmakers from both major parties rejected any notion of talking to Hamas. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk said the move was akin to supporting a government that “only has a few Nazis in it.”
Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff told the paper the proposal was “completely unworkable,” even if Hamas were to agree to abide by US preconditions.
The administration is hamstrung in delivering aid to Gaza because of restrictions on dealing with Hamas, which is categorized as a terrorist organization. The White House is pushing for aid to help rebuild the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which was decimated by Israeli firepower in the siege early this year.
Many in Washington are watching for signs that the new Democratic team at the White House might be more sympathetic to Palestinians than the administration of former President George W. Bush, whose government boycotted the Palestinian Authority after Hamas swept to victory in parliamentary elections in 2006, and refused to deal with the joint Hamas-Fatah unity government established in 2007, even though the platform of that government allowed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to continue negotiations with Israel.
Bill Corcoran, president and CEO of American Near East Refugee Aid , told Arab News that his understanding is that if a unity government was formed between the PA and Hamas, President Obama would be prepared to continue support to the Palestinians.
“All he is saying is that the door to aid to the Palestinians is not automatically shut, that they may be looking for ways to support the PA,” said Corcoran. “All the NGOs would welcome a liberalized protocol of delivering supplies and building materials to Gaza.”
Corcoran said the NGOs are in urgent need of supplies “that are aimed at recovery and rehabilitation, and not simply relief — food and medicine.”
Jim Zogby, president of the American Arab Institute, agreed with Corcoran.
“It appears that the administration wants to make it possible for aid to continue in the eventuality of a Palestinian reconciliation agreement,” he said.
“This is in keeping with George Mitchell’s approach to diplomacy and represents a sharp break from the Bush administration’s policy of talking only to our friends,” Zogby said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has defended the proposal, saying that the US has continued to fund other governments in which designated terror groups are represented, including the Lebanese government, which includes officials from the Hezbollah organization.
“We don’t want to … bind our hands in the event that such an agreement is reached, and the government that they are part of agrees to our principles,” Clinton recently told reporters.
Nihad Awad, head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), agreed.
“If the Obama administration desires better results in the search for peace with justice in the Middle East, then our nation’s approach to the conflict needs to change, otherwise we are going to get more of the same,” he said.
Clinton has urged the government to work to change the attitudes of Hamas, rather than cutting of all possibility of dealing with them should they join the ruling Palestinian coalition.
Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington group that advocates Palestinian statehood, told reporters the proposal was another one of Obama’s overtures.
“This is saying, ‘I’m reasonable. I’m trying to make a start. Don’t say I haven’t tried’,” Asali said.
The administration’s request for these minor changes may not come into play, as expectations are extremely low that rival factions of Hamas and Fatah will reach an agreement at their fourth round of Egyptian-brokered reconciliation negotiations, which began yesterday in Cairo.
Nathan Brown, a specialist in Palestinian politics at George Washington University, called the proposal “gutsy,” citing the known opposition to the move by lawmakers.