EU Ministers Back Palestinian Aid Freeze

European Union foreign ministers on Monday endorsed a freeze of EU aid to the Palestinian government, but said they would seek alternative ways of providing money for humanitarian projects, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said.

"There will be no aid to (Hamas) government organizations, but we will maintain humanitarian aid," said Bot. "The Palestinian people have opted for this government, so they will have to bear the consequences."

Earlier, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Europe continues to "stand by the Palestinian people." It will continue to provide money for electricity, food, education and other projects, so "their basic human needs will be met in the future," she added.

Hamas, which won January's Palestinian legislative elections, is on the EU's list of terrorist organizations, a designation that bars EU officials from any dealings with the group.

But officials said humanitarian aid could continue to reach the Palestinian people through international organizations and bypass the Palestinian Authority.

The international Red Cross on Monday, warning of a possible humanitarian and security crisis, said the U.S. and EU cannot expect aid organizations to fill in for the Palestinian government if it is unable to maintain services.

"Humanitarian organizations simply cannot replace the range of services that a public administration has to deal with," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross. "It's neither our role, nor do we have the range of capacities."

The ICRC, which is mandated by the Geneva Conventions on warfare to protect civilians in combat and under occupation, said Israel — as the occupying power — is responsible under international law to ensure that the basic needs of civilians in the Palestinian territories, including food and medical attention.

Kraehenbuehl warned of a possible humanitarian and security crisis if the newly elected government is unable to provide basic services and ensure law and order.

Earlier, Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer had appealed to the EU not to cut off aid.

"I ask the European Union not to make a decision that will hurt the Palestinian people," he said. "We need the money they have been sending, for hospitals, schools, paving roads."

Ferrero-Waldner reiterated that if the new Palestinian leadership wants all aid resumed the Islamic militant Hamas must "renounce violence, recognize the existence of Israel and also stand by the agreements" previous Palestinian governments have signed with Israel.

In a draft of a statement to be issued later Monday, the EU said it "noted with grave concern that the program of the new Palestinian government does not contain a clear commitment to (these) three principles."

The EU's executive Commission last Friday suspended direct aid — crucial budgetary funding typically used for road-building and other infrastructure projects and to meet the Palestinian Authority's payroll.

"It is right we attach consequences to the fact the Palestinian government is not responding to our expectations" that it commit to peace with Israel, said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday the EU had "responsibilities not to see the Palestinian people suffer."

"But so, too, does the Hamas government," Straw said, "because democracy carries with it responsibilities ... not to go in for violence as a way of resolving arguments.

Aid to the Palestinians from the EU and its 25 member nations usually totals around $615 million a year. Funds that have been suspended amount to about half of that, while the remainder comes from bilateral programs — some of which have also been suspended.

The United States, Canada and non-EU member Norway have also cut off payments. The cut in foreign aid comes on top of a decision by Israel to withhold some $50 million a month in tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians.

The annual Palestinian budget is about $1.9 billion. The $1.3 billion in foreign aid last year accounted for 32 percent of Palestinian gross domestic product, making Palestinians the biggest per capita recipients of foreign aid in the world.