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Palestinian official doesn't know when he'll be able to pay workers

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Five weeks ago, Omar Abdel-Razeq was one of hundreds of nameless Hamas activists rounded up by Israeli soldiers and thrown in jail for being part of the militant group.

Now the American-educated professor, who was appointed finance minister of the fledgling Hamas-led Palestinian government, is at the forefront of frantic efforts to stave off imminent financial collapse.

"The world has the example of Somalia, when the government collapsed and you had 16 years of political chaos," Abdel-Razeq warned Wednesday in an interview with Knight Ridder in his Ramallah office. "And if this government was pushed to failure, then I believe there will be chaos."

Like countless revolutionary movements before it, Hamas is quickly learning that it takes more than rhetoric to run a government—especially the Palestinian Authority.

Israel and much of the world have cut off aid to the Palestinian government, placing it on the edge of economic collapse. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah party, has moved to strip Hamas of political power. Frustrated Palestinian soldiers have blocked roads and taken over buildings to demand that they be paid.

On Wednesday, Jordan rebuffed a meeting with the Palestinian foreign minister and accused Hamas of smuggling weapons into its country. A deadly suicide bombing on Monday in Tel Aviv, which Palestinian government officials defended, has increased pressure on Hamas to abandon its founding principles and accept Israel's right to exist.

Abdel-Razeq walked almost directly from his three months in jail into office and the crisis. The 48-year-old professor, who received his Ph.D. in economics at the Iowa State University in the 1980s, was accused of helping to raise money for Hamas. The Israelis released him days before he was named finance minister.

The Palestinian Authority was barely avoiding bankruptcy even before Hamas won the January parliamentary elections.

After Hamas won, Israel froze the single biggest source of Palestinian Authority funds: a monthly transfer of about $50 million in tax and customs revenue that Israel collects for the Palestinians. International donors halted aid until Hamas abandons its calls for the destruction of Israel.

Rather than capitulate to those demands, Palestinian leaders have been crisscrossing the Middle East looking for a bailout. Iran has pledged $100 million. Qatar: $50 million. Russia is offering $10 million for humanitarian aid.

But so far none of the money has arrived, and Abdel-Razeq said he isn't sure when he'll be able to pay the Palestinians' 160,000 government workers, who haven't been paid yet for March.

The lack of pay has sparked tense street protests, with angry police officers taking over the prime minister's Ramallah office last week and blocking Gaza Strip roads to demand action.

"It's the beginning of the revolution of the hungry," said Rashid Abu Shabak, whom Abbas recently appointed to a top security post in an effort to dilute Hamas' influence.

The competing pressures have pushed Hamas into a corner. If the Hamas-led government collapses, Israel could face even worse problems and a new Palestinian uprising, warned Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Middle East studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"They are going through this process of pragmatization," Maoz said. "What can they do? They have responsibility for the people, and they are fed up with eating slogans. They want food."

Many dismiss any suggestion that Hamas would scrap decades of ideology and deeply held religious beliefs to recognize Israel in return for financial assistance.

But Abdel-Razeq made it clear that, if given time, Hamas might be willing to do just that.

"I would not like the recognition of the state of Israel for many reasons," said Abdel-Razeq, whose mother was born near Tel Aviv before Israel was founded in 1948. "But I might accept it if it's part of a package."

Hamas officials have said they'd be willing to live alongside Israel if the Jewish nation closes all its disputed settlements in the West Bank and accepts the political boundaries as they stood before the 1967 war.

But even such conciliatory talk goes only so far. Like other Palestinian leaders, Abdel-Razeq tried to justify this week's Tel Aviv suicide bombing, which killed nine people, as an act of self-defense.

"If you look at it scientifically, this kid must have had some other plans," he said, referring to the bomber. "Why would someone do what he did? They have reasons behind such acts. They are not ends. It's not (that) you want to kill for the killing."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-HAMAS

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