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Senate Votes to Block Aid to Palestinians

The Senate voted Friday to block U.S. aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government and ban contacts with Hamas until the organization renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

The legislation, approved by voice vote, is similar to a bill the House passed last month but would give the president greater authority over the use of sanctions and is not as restrictive in cutting off assistance to non-governmental groups working in the West Bank and Gaza. The differences between the bills would have to be reconciled by House and Senate conferees before the legislation could be sent to the president.

The State Department had voiced concerns about the House bill, saying it was unneeded and constrains the president's flexibility in using sanctions. The administration classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and has already cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, under Hamas control since January elections.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sponsor of the Senate bill with Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said it was aimed at the Hamas-controlled government and not meant to punish the Palestinian people. "This legislation urges the current Palestinian government to take another step toward joining the community of peaceful nations and a step away from the ranks of terrorism."

The bill bans aid to the Palestinian Authority until it acknowledges Israel's right to exist, renounces violence and accepts past peace agreements with Israel.

Exceptions are made to provide financial support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has committed to a negotiated two-state solution with Israel.

Like the House bill, it would deny visas to Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Authority officials, put travel restrictions on Palestinian Authority officials at the United Nations and bar the Authority from opening an office in the United States.

It would limit aid to nongovernmental organizations, but go further than the House bill in making exceptions for basic needs such as food. water, health, medicine, sanitation and education.

It also would create a $20 million "peace, reconciliation and democracy fund" to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group, gave its strong support to the Senate bill, just as it had to the House version.

The Israel Policy Forum, which opposes the House bill, said it backed the Senate measure. "It allows the president more flexibility," said M.J. Rosenberg, the organization's director of policy. "If he has reason to use carrots rather than just a stick, under this bill he can do it."