U.S. and Israel bolster beleaguered Palestinian leader

Posted in United States , Israel / Palestine | 20-Jun-07 | Author: Helene Cooper| Source: International Herald Tribune

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel tried again Tuesday to strengthen the position of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, describing him as a voice of moderation in the Middle East, in contrast to the rival Hamas party, which they condemned as an extremist group dedicated to violence.

"He is the president of all the Palestinians," Bush said of Abbas, with Olmert by his side in the Oval Office. "He has spoken out for moderation. He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood."

Olmert agreed, calling Abbas "perhaps the only person who was widely elected in a democratic manner by all the Palestinian people," and that he wanted to make "every possible effort to cooperate" with him.

Seizing the chance to condemn Hamas, Olmert said he was sure that many people have been "astounded by the brutality and the cruelty and the viciousness" of Hamas fighters.

"We who live in the Middle East perhaps are somewhat less surprised," Olmert said, "but not less outraged."

Bush and Olmert also reiterated their vision of Israel and a Palestinian state co-existing peacefully one day, in a way that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people while guaranteeing the security of Israel.

Then the two leaders went into a private meeting, where the widening chasm between Fatah and Hamas and the advent of the Fatah-led emergency government in the West Bank would probably be central subjects.

On Monday, the United States and the European Union announced an end to their economic and political embargoes of the Palestinian Authority, in a bid to bolster Abbas and the new government he has established in the West Bank as a counterweight to Hamas's control of Gaza.

The American decision freed up tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians that has been frozen since Hamas won legislative elections in early 2006.

The EU also said it would resume direct aid to the Palestinians, and Olmert said Israel would release to Abbas the Palestinian tax revenues that Israel has withheld since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Parliament.

In siding so firmly with Abbas, the Bush administration is steering into new territory in its dealings with the Palestinians.

It has essentially thrown its support behind the dismantling of a democratically elected government. Abbas's decision to strip Hamas of its representation in the National Security Council and to form a new government has kindled a legal battle over whether he has overstepped his powers under the Palestinian Constitution.

Israel allowed 12 trucks of food and medical supplies into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Israeli officials and international aid representatives said, in an effort to avert a looming crisis now that Hamas is in control, Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem.

In addition, Israeli ambulances evacuated at least two wounded Palestinians from the Gaza side of the Erez border crossing and took them to a hospital in Israel. The two had been wounded in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire on Monday, after Palestinian gunmen allied with Hamas attacked the border terminal.

The wounded men had been trapped in a no-man's land between Gaza and Israel, along with hundreds of other Palestinians seeking to leave the strip. One Palestinian man was killed in the attack.

Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, the Israeli government agency that deals with the Palestinian areas, said 11 Palestinians were wounded in all, but most of them were treated by Israeli first aid crews on the Gaza side of the border.

Israel sealed off the crossings along the border with Gaza after Hamas seized power there five days ago. Israeli officials say there is nobody to deal with on the other side.

The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority security services that previously operated the Gaza side of the border crossings ran for their lives during the fighting. Israel, like much of the West, considers Hamas a terrorist organization and refuses to deal with it.

The trucks of supplies entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, a little-used entry point originally intended for goods coming to Gaza from Egypt. International organizations received the cargo on the Palestinian side. The Karni crossing, Gaza's main entry and exit point for cargo, is no longer functional, Dror said, because much of the equipment on the Palestinian side was stolen by looters after the fighting.

Kirstie Campbell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations World Food Program, said that the food trucks on Tuesday contained vegetable oil and sugar, two basic commodities that are already running low in Gaza stores, partly as a result of panic buying.

There are plans for more trucks to pass through Wednesday, carrying mainly wheat flour. The World Food Program supports 275,000 of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.