Middle East

Israel to Free Funds for Abbas, Fatah

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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Israeli Cabinet agree to release millions of dollars in frozen tax money for the Palestinian government. The move shows support for Fatah and undercuts the rival Hamas movement in control of Gaza.


In Jerusalem today, the Israeli cabinet agreed to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues to the new emergency government of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem that Israeli officials say they want to bolster Abbas and to weaken the Islamist Hamas movement.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government approved the transfer of $350 million - half the total $700 million Israel has frozen since the Islamist Hamas movement won elections. Israeli officials say the funds will be given to Abbas' new government in the West Bank in stages. They say Israel wants to make sure the money does not reach Gaza where Hamas took control earlier this month. But Abbas risks coming under fire if he uses the money to help Palestinians in the West Bank and ignores the one a half million Palestinians in Gaza - where unemployment and poverty are even higher.

The Israeli cabinet decision comes a day before Olmert meets Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah at a summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The summit is meant to show high profile support for Abbas and his new government. Olmert may also announce the removal of some of the hundreds of Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank to ease freedom of movement. Olmert says Israel wants to build a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, but stop short of calling for immediate negotiations with Abbas' government.

Palestinian analysts say the only real way to help Abbas consolidate power is to start negotiations on a Palestinian state. But analysts on both sides say Abbas and Olmert are both too weak to do this.

Olmert said, at the summit, Israel will demand that Abbas' new government confront militant groups. Israeli officials say Israel will also ask Egypt to do more to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. At the same time, Egypt has some demands of Israel. The Egyptian foreign minister today urged Israel to halt raids into the West Bank and to stop building the controversial barrier in and around the West Bank. Israel is unlikely to agree to either request.

Meanwhile, Israel today marked one year since Hamas and two other groups captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid. At a rally, Shalit's father criticized the government for failing to win his son's release. He also said Israel should do anything to free his son including releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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