Nations Decide on Plan to Assist Palestinian People

This weekend, the United States, Russia, the U.N. and the EU — The quartet that, since 2002, has worked together to seek Middle East peace — agreed on a plan to get financial assistance to the Palestinian people hurt by interruption of aid to the Palestinian Authority. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Hisham Melhem, the Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This weekend, the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union - that quartet since 2002 has worked together seeking Middle East peace - agreed to give direct financial assistance to Palestinians hard-hit by the interruption of aid since Hamas took power earlier this year.

A statement on the State Department website said the aid would be limited in scope and duration and that it would be directed at needs-based assistance, directly to the Palestinian people, including essential equipment, supplies, and support for health services. It did not say how much money would be provided.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. He's also the host of a weekly program on the Arab Satellite channel, El Arabia. And Hisham Melhem, welcome to the show.

Mr. HISHAM MELHEM (Washington Correspondent for the Lebanese Newspaper An-Nahar): Thank you.

HANSEN: First of all, the money. Can enough be sent to the Palestinian people to make up for those losses, after the lost services from the Palestinian Authority?

Mr. MELHEM: I really don't think so. This is just a form of compensation, and I'm sure the Europeans were driven by their concern that unless emergency funds and other forms of supplies and aid to the Palestinians are coming through soon, we will be facing a chaotic situation and a humanitarian crisis. And I think the United States, after a great deal of reluctance, accepted, albeit with some conditions, this new package from the Europeans.

There is also concern in Europe, and in Washington, that unless the international community moves quickly, this will allow other players in the region, like Iran and Hezbollah and others, to fill in the void, thereby creating another political challenge to the peace process. If there is such a thing now as the peace process.

HANSEN: Hmm. But that's the diplomatic significance of this quartet agreeing to the aid, beyond the financial assistance, right?

Mr. MELHEM: Precisely.

HANSEN: The change of control over the Palestinian Authority, there's been deteriorating conditions for the Palestinian people. There's been greatly increased violence between competing Palestinian factions. Is cash, or the infusion of some cash, going to help quiet these conflicts?

Mr. MELHEM: Well, it could buy the Hamas government some time. But really this is not going to solve the financial problems that the Hamas government is facing right now. We're talking about at least $160 million to pay the salaries. We're not talking about other funds to maintain the infrastructure and to provide other services than salaries.

The financial problem will remain in the foreseeable future. The real concern right now within the Palestinian community and in the Arab world, and in Europe, probably more so than in Washington, is to avoid sliding towards some civil strife. It may be an exaggeration to call it civil war, but there is a void in terms of security. There is very little room of maneuver left for both the Hamas government and the President to avoid bigger conflict.

HANSEN: So Hamas is vulnerable right now, because of the economic conditions. What happens if they leave, or fail?

Mr. MELHEM: Well, Hamas is facing a myriad of problems. You have the security problem from the Israelis, who are maintaining the pressure on them. You have clashes on the border. You have Palestinian casualties - which, by the way, if we're talking about a referendum that will recognize Israel, albeit implicitly, this kind of Israeli pressure and the death of civilian Palestinians will probably play into Hamas' hand in the foreseeable future.

Hamas would like nothing but to be left alone at this stage, so that they will consolidate their control and their grip on Palestinian institutions. And remember, these institutions have been manned for decades by Fatah loyalists, or loyalists to the former President Arafat, late President Arafat, and now President Abbas.

So Hamas is facing all these problems, and they have a dearth of friends in the region, or in the world. They may get promises from Iran or other players in the region, like Qatar and others, but even those financial pledges cannot be delivered because of the reluctance of the international banking system - including the Arab banks - being involved, because of the potential threat of being boycotted by the American banking system. And this is something no bank in the region would like to see.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. Thank you very much for your time.

Mr. MELHEM: Thank you.

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