Palestinians Expect Huge Foreign Aid Package

The Palestinians (searchexpect a large aid package from the United States and other donor countries to help rebuild the Gaza Strip (searchafter an Israeli withdrawal, the Palestinian foreign minister said Thursday.

The foreign minister, Nabil Shaath (search), is traveling to Washington later this month to discuss Israel's unilateral withdrawal plan with top U.S. officials.

In Gaza, the Palestinian Authority and various militant factions are to hold a new round of talks this weekend on a possible power-sharing arrangement after an Israeli withdrawal.

The two sides are nowhere near a deal which would require major concessions, including agreement by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to give up some of his power and an implicit recognition of Israel by Hamas. The Islamic militant group, which has killed more than 300 Israelis in attacks since 2000, seeks Israel's destruction.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he expects to withdraw from Gaza in the coming year. As part of Sharon's unilateral "disengagement," Israel would also impose a boundary in the West Bank, at least temporarily.

Sharon travels to Washington next week for talks with President Bush, hoping to garner American backing for the withdrawal plan. Shaath will hold talks with senior administration officials a week later.

The Palestinians fear Sharon is giving up Gaza in order to tighten his hold on much of the West Bank. However, they also said they welcome any withdrawal.

Shaath said the Palestinians will demand that the United States do "nothing that will pre-empt a permanent settlement, neither on borders nor refugees or anything."

In the event of a Gaza withdrawal, "the Americans should be ready with the World Bank and other donors to make massive economic support for the Palestinian Authority," Shaath said in interview with Israel Radio. He did not give a sum.

The Palestinians, already heavily dependent on international aid, are hoping for more money to help rebuild an economy shattered in more than three years of fighting with Israel.

Shaath said the funds were needed for "relief, reconstruction, economic activities, labor and job creation, and others."

Shaath was quoted as saying he is aware of American expectations that in return for the aid, the Palestinians crack down on militant groups and arrest those behind the bombing of an U.S. convoy in Gaza in October.

In other developments Thursday, the Israeli military said 27 wanted Palestinians were arrested in overnight raids across the West Bank. Palestinian officials said two of those arrested were female students from the Al Quds university in Nablus.

In Jerusalem, 10 ultra-Orthodox youths were arrested for assaulting Arabs in Jerusalem, police said Thursday.

The 10 were suspected of throwing rocks and assaulting Arab cab drivers during a drunken rampage on the Jewish festival of Purim last month.