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Middle East peacemakers agree to interim aid to Palestinians

UNITED NATIONS, N.Y.—Bowing to European pressure, the United States agreed Tuesday to help establish a temporary fund to channel humanitarian assistance to imperiled Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The step appeared to be a slight softening of the Bush administration's policy of isolating the new Palestinian government run by Hamas.

However, none of the funds will go directly to Hamas, which the United States and European Union consider a terrorist group, and the funds are supposed to be carefully monitored to ensure that they serve the needy.

"The international community is still trying to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a press conference.

She blamed Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist or stop terrorist attacks, for the Palestinians' plight.

Separately, Rice announced that the United States is donating $10 million in medical supplies to the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where the medical system is approaching crisis.

The first $4 million in assistance is due to begin arriving by truck on Wednesday. The U.S. aid appears aimed in part at blunting world criticism that the Bush administration's cutoff of all but basic aid to the Palestinians is creating pain for ordinary people.

The donation reflects "a realization that the situation is becoming increasingly dire," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak more frankly.

The U.S. donation consists of medical supplies rather than cash to avoid violating U.S. laws against funding terrorist organizations, he said.

There's been a growing chorus of international warnings that the situation in the Palestinian areas, where medical care has grown scarce and government salaries are going unpaid, is explosive and could lead to collapse.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost to Hamas in January parliamentary elections, appealed to the Middle East peacemakers Tuesday to end the embargo on aid to the Palestinian Authority.

That message was reinforced by top envoys from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia who met here with the peacemaking "Quartet"—the European Union, Russia, United Nations and United States.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Palestinians need electricity, medical care, trade and more.

"All this must function for the people not to feel abandoned," Lavrov said. "I believe everybody understands something must be done."

Details of how the new funding mechanism announced Tuesday will operate remain to be worked out in coming weeks, U.S. and European diplomats said.

The Bush administration, which was divided over the idea, insisted that the fund channel aid directly to the Palestinians, bypassing Hamas' government; that its operations be transparent; and that it be "limited in scope and duration."

The United States vetoed proposals floated by France and Britain that the fund be used to pay Palestinian government salaries, the diplomats said.

A senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the State Department, said the United States is unlikely to contribute directly to the fund. A European official said Israel, which has withheld tax payments it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, could contribute those to the fund. It isn't known whether Israel will do so.

On another major front, while the Bush administration is pushing to isolate and punish Iran, France took the lead Tuesday in insisting that Iran be offered incentives, not just threats, to end its uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities.

French Foreign Minister Phillipe Douste-Blazy said that if Iran suspends uranium enrichment, "then it will be offered a positive package of incentives," including trade, help with civilian nuclear power and security guarantees.

The Bush administration has refused to extend Iran guarantees against an attack and hasn't ruled out the use of force to stop Tehran from getting nuclear weapons.

Rice and her colleagues failed at a lengthy session Monday night to agree on a way forward in dealing with Iran. A proposed new U.N. Security Council resolution mandating Iranian compliance has been delayed, perhaps by weeks, because Russia and China oppose invoking a chapter of the U.N. charter that could permit the use of sanctions and military force against Iran.

Rice played down the idea of new incentives for Iran, saying Tuesday that what was being considered was merely a restatement of past European and Russian offers.

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

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