RAMALLAH, West Bank – The United States will continue sending humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people even after a Hamas government is formed, a senior U.S. envoy told Palestinian leaders during the first high-level meeting between the two sides since Hamas' election victory.
State Department envoy David Welch said the U.S. continues "to be devoted to the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people and we shall remain so."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Welch told Palestinian officials that U.S. aid would be redirected, but Welch did not specify how.
Erekat noted that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid flow directly into infrastructure projects every year, and not into Palestinian government coffers.
"We urged the U.S. administration to continue helping the Palestinian people, as it did in previous years," Erekat said after the meeting. "They have never transferred a single dollar to the Palestinian Authority directly. The money was being transferred via non-governmental organizations."
The U.S. and the EU consider Hamas a terror organization and have threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid if Hamas doesn't abandon its violent campaign against Israel.
With that threat looming, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who favors peacemaking with Israel, again warned in comments published Saturday that he would quit if Hamas didn't change its ways.
"We could reach a point where I cannot perform my duty," the Irish Independent newspaper quoted Abbas as telling Britain's ITV network in an interview to be broadcast Sunday. "If I can do something I will continue, otherwise I won't."
At the same time, Abbas urged the international community to give the militant group a grace period. The group last month won 74 seats in the 132-member Palestinian legislature and is working on forming a government.
"I think they are now responsible, and in order to assume responsibilities, their policies have to be compatible with international polices," Abbas said.
Currently, the U.S. and EU funnel roughly $900 million annually to the Palestinians, with about one-third of that going from the EU to the Palestinian Authority directly and the rest going to reconstruction projects.
On Friday, Abbas told Israel's Channel 10 TV that Hamas was working to halt rocket attacks on Israel that have drawn retaliatory Israeli air strikes and artillery fire. The army killed seven Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a new round of violence on Thursday and Friday.
Abbas was elected separately a year ago to a four-year term. Hamas' routing of his long-ruling Fatah Party in parliamentary elections has put Abbas in a power tussle with the militant group, which has sent mixed messages about its intentions regarding Israel.
On Saturday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group would accept a "long-term, transitional solution" that would involve a truce on the Palestinians' side and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
But he wouldn't say what a permanent solution would entail, and the group hasn't renounced its call for Israel's destruction.
On Friday, EU officials said they would continue supporting the Palestinian Authority during the transition period, but hadn't decided what to do once Hamas takes over.
EU officials said they want to keep supporting Abbas, who continues to wield considerable power and is seen as a counterweight to Hamas.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces arrested two Palestinians on Saturday in a rare raid on the quiet West Bank town of Jericho.
One of the arrested men, Sami Akilan, belonged to a militant faction of Abbas' Fatah Party, the army said. Security officials said Israel had repeatedly asked the Palestinian Authority to arrest Akilan, who was involved in the past in planning attacks on Israeli civilians, and recently was planning another.
The other man, who was not identified, was brought in for questioning, the army said, without providing further details.