Palestinian Authority unfazed by US threat to withhold aid


THE MIDDLE EAST: Israel's two best-selling newspapers yesterday ran inaccurate banner headlines asserting that President Bush, following through with his newly toughened stance against the current Palestinian Authority leadership, has not ruled out a resort to the use of force against the Palestinians.

In fact, Mr Bush, in comments the previous evening at the G8 summit in Canada, had made abundantly clear that the reverse was the case - that he hoped the election by the Palestinian people of a different leadership within the next few months, and the radical reform of what he called a corrupt and terror-encouraging Palestinian Authority, would pave the way to renewed dialogue with Israel and a permanent peace accord within three years.

What Mr Bush is seriously threatening to do, however, is withhold substantial aid to the Palestinians if they do not oust their President Yasser Arafat and his colleagues in favour of a leadership he would consider untainted by terrorism and inclined to moderation. "We won't be putting money into a society which is not transparent and (which is) corrupt," he said.

"And I suspect other countries won't, either." The President was evidently alluding to a package of US and other international financial assistance, promised as an incentive to the Palestinians to institute widespread reforms. US officials later said he was not referring to a current $100 million in humanitarian aid, which is transferred directly to specific projects and not channelled through the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Bush issued the threat hours after the PA's Planning Minister, Mr Nabil Sha'ath, stated firmly that Mr Arafat had no intention of heeding the President's call and standing aside at the forthcoming Palestinian elections.

US officials further tried to pressure Mr Arafat by making clear that, when the Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, visits the region, he will not meet Mr Arafat. "We know terrorists and we don't meet with them," a State Department spokesman said.

The Palestinian leadership, however, is still professing itself unfazed. Mr Arafat and several of his ministerial colleagues have protested at the US demand for changed leadership as an outrageous intervention in their internal affairs - and have watched with some satisfaction as other international leaders have made comments along similar lines.

PA sources also say Mr Arafat will not delegate authority to a prime minister - as the Americans are now privately suggesting. Mr Imad Falouji, the PA's Minister of Telecommunications, said the threat to withhold aid "contradicts the principles of democracy" and was irrelevant anyway, since "the United States has never sent financial aid to the Palestinian people".

Privately, what's more, PA officials indicated that if Mr Powell, who met Mr Arafat when he last visited here two months ago, boycotted him this time, no other credible Palestinian official would meet the Secretary, either.

In the West Bank, a young Palestinian boy died from injuries after being hit by Israeli gunfire in Qalkilya, Palestinian sources said. There was no Israeli army comment. A 17-year-old Palestinian was killed at the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. Palestinian sources said the troops had fired on stone-throwers. Israeli sources said the man was planting a bomb.

Israeli helicopters fired missiles into the PA's headquarters compound in Hebron yesterday, where some 15 men wanted by Israel are holed up. Troops stormed a PA jail in Nablus and arrested 20 Palestinian policemen. The army is still deployed inside or around every major West Bank city, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain under curfew.

Marie O'Halloran adds:

The Palestinian leadership is a question for the Palestinian people to decide, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, said yesterday. He told the Dáil there were positive aspects to the statement by Mr Bush.

"There are also aspects to it with which we would not necessarily agree. We welcome the US engagement in the process," but the EU believed the Palestinian people had to decide its leadership. He said the "only real palpable initiative that is currently available is the need to call an international conference".