Palestinian Leader Shrugs Off Suspension of Aid

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Friday that the suspension of Western aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority would neither bring down his Hamas-led government nor break his people.

Thousands of Palestinians joined Hamas-organized rallies in Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to show their support for the government.

"The Palestinian people will not give up their government no matter how many sacrifices we have to make. We are prepared to eat thyme, salt and olives," Haniyeh told hundreds of supporters at an open-air mosque in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Western nations cut funding to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January and formed a Cabinet last month. Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction and is listed as a terror group by the U.S. and European Union, has refused to meet Western demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Israel has also suspended the transfer of about $50 million in monthly taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian government.

Hamas has acknowledged it is broke and will have trouble paying the salaries of 140,000 government workers — payments that sustain one-third of the Palestinians. The March paychecks are two weeks overdue, and the Palestinian finance minister has said he is still tens of millions of dollars short of covering the payroll.

Haniyeh said his government inherited an empty treasury and $700 million in debt from the previous Cabinet led by President Mahmoud Abbas' moderate Fatah Party.

Israeli officials have said they hope the cut off in funds would either force Hamas to moderate or bring down the government, but Haniyeh remained defiant.

"There are some who insinuate that this government will only last a month or two. I tell you this government will serve its constitutional term of four years," he said. "We are keepers of the Palestinian rights. We will not betray them, we will not give them way and we will not back down."

Haniyeh told the worshippers that God would be on their side.

"Be reassured, be patient, be united," he said.

Later Friday, thousands of Hamas supporters gathered in a Gaza City square, pledging allegiance to the new government.

"We promise to God that we will stay steadfast, patient, with our government and our prime minister," the crowd of thousands of supporters shouted, waving green Hamas flags.

So far there have been no signs of popular discontent with the government, but individual Palestinians have expressed growing impatience.

Several thousand Palestinians protested in Nablus in support of the government, but Hassan Tubaila, a 40-year-old government employee said he was losing patience as he waited for his overdue salary.

"Today we see a great demonstration. Maybe in a week, we shall see an even greater one, against the government, if we don't get our salaries," he said.

As Haniyeh spoke, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar embarked on a fund-raising tour of Arab nations to help alleviate the financial crisis. Zahar's two-week trip was to include stops in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Hamas has said it would make up the financial shortfall by appealing to the Arab and Muslim world. But Arab states have so far failed to back up their rhetorical solidarity with the Palestinians with money and it is uncertain if Zahar will be more successful on his trip.

Haniyeh told the Gaza City rally that its the duty of Arab and Muslim nations to provide the Palestinians with help.

"We are not calling for donations. This is the duty, the duty of the nation toward the Palestinian people," he said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit had said he was too busy to meet with Zahar, but Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said a meeting would be held in the end.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army launched a new artillery barrage at the Gaza Strip on Friday after Palestinian militants fired eight homemade rockets at Israel, the army said. The cross border fighting has escalated over the past week, and 16 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli shelling and targeted attacks on militants.

Also Friday, Israeli troops briefly entered Gaza for the second day in a row searching for explosive devices planted by militants along the border fence, the army said. The troops advanced about 50 yards into the central Gaza Strip, the army said.

The incursion Thursday was the first time Israeli troops re-entered Gaza since Israel pulled out of the territory in September after 38 years of occupation.

The U.N. Security Council failed to agree on a statement Thursday regarding the surge in violence after the United States said the proposed draft was unfairly critical of Israel.

Hamad complained about the U.S. objection to the statement.

"The American position gets uglier by the day, and reveals to the Arab and Muslim world that ... (the U.S.) has no interest but supporting Israel," he said.

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat urged the United States to reconsider its position.