The Obama administration said Thursday it would reassess aid to the Palestinians if the militant group Hamas joins the U.S.-backed Palestinian government, with several lawmakers already clamoring for funding to be cut off.
State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke Fulton said the U.S. was continuing its assistance programs for now, while seeking more information on the emerging alliance between President Mahmoud Abbas' pro-Western Fatah party that governs in the West Bank and its rival, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
"Our current support ... serves as an important contribution to U.S. efforts to support the building of Palestinian institutions that are necessary for a future state," she said. "If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its policies at that time and will determine the implications for our assistance based on U.S. law."
The two Palestinian groups said this week they have reached a tentative deal to end a four-year rift, but the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist group, making it ineligible for direct American aid. When the Palestinians last had a unity government, the U.S. continued to channel some money to Abbas but with strict and complicated controls that barred diplomats from contacts with Hamas members and U.S. money from being directed to Hamas-run agencies.
The administration had hoped to provide more than $500 million in aid programs for Palestinians next year, but several lawmakers are already threatening to cut off the money.
"The Palestinian Authority has chosen an alliance with violence and extremism," said a joint statement Wednesday from seven Democratic and two Republican members of Congress after they met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
They said American law forbids U.S. assistance if Hamas is included in the Palestinian government.
And Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "U.S. taxpayer funds should not and must not be used to support those who threaten U.S. security, our interests and our vital ally, Israel."
Abbas sought Thursday to play down the concerns, insisting he will retain control over Palestinian foreign policy and pledging his commitment to peace with Israel. Speaking in Ramallah, he stressed that there would be no Hamas representatives in the new government.
Fulton, at the State Department, said the U.S. supports Palestinian reconciliation but "on terms which promote the cause of peace." Any new government needs to accept past agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist, she said.