Rice plans to boost funding for Abbas forces

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday she would ask the US Congress for tens of millions of dollars to strengthen the security forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The funding request comes as tensions are at their highest in a decade in the Palestinian territories, with government unity talks stalled and Hamas accusing Abbas of trying to start a civil war.

The United States wants to ensure that Abbas, whose Fateh party was trounced by Hamas in elections last January, emerges victorious in any power struggle with Hamas and has been saying for months that more needs to be done to boost his forces.

“We will request funding to support the security reform [of Abbas’ forces] and I think we will get support,” said Rice in an interview with Reuters, adding that the aid would be in the range of tens of millions of dollars. “We are going to find a way to support President Mahmoud Abbas. I think people have made very clear that we are prepared to and we have in fact are working hard on the reform of his security force even in the absence of a political resolution of the conflict,” said Rice.

But senior Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri countered that the United States was attempting to divide Palestinians.

“Therefore, we urge President Abbas not to accept this conditional and politicised support which aims to spread sedition among our people with the goal of instigating internal strife,” he said from Gaza when asked about Rice’s comments.


Not overnight

Rice said it could take some time to boost Abbas’ forces.

Since Hamas came to power, Abbas’ presidential guard has grown to about 4,000 members from about 2,500. Hamas said recently its police force numbered about 5,600.

To further bolster Abbas, the United States has backed a proposal by Abbas to bring about 1,000 members of the so-called Badr brigade into the Palestinian territories from Jordan.

“You can’t build security forces overnight to deal with the kind of lawlessness that is there in Gaza which largely derives from Hamas’ inability to govern,” Rice said.

“Their [the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority] inability to govern, of course, comes from their unwillingness to meet international standards,” she added.

The United States and others have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, agree to past Israeli-Palestinian accords and recognise Israel before a Western aid boycott can end.

The United States, the European Union and others regard Hamas as a terrorist group and have cut off direct aid to the group.

State Department officials have been discussing the funding request for support for Abbas in recent weeks with key staff on Capitol Hill, trying to convince them the money will not reach Hamas, which would be forbidden under US law. “We are going to adopt extremely concrete and tight measures to make sure that the money is going to the right places,” said Rice.

Rice, who visited the Palestinian territories and Israel last month, is under strong pressure, particularly from Arab states, to revive the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.

The Iraq Study Group report, a study by bipartisan experts, issued earlier this month and recommending ways for the United States to tackle the Iraq war, also called for a renewed and sustained US push for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Rice, who is expected to return to the region early in the new year, said that despite the latest violence, she still saw an “opening” in breaking the deadlock.

“Israelis and mainstream Palestinians — the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas — want, I think, to find a way to move this process forward. That is really where the opening is,” she said.

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