Congress has tightened its noose on $13 million slated for the Palestinian Authority.
The move came this week after hearings on Capitol Hill aimed at investigating the Palestine Liberation Organization’s commitment to peace.
Wielding his powers as chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) last month quietly put a hold on part of the U.S. assistance slated to go to the Palestinian Authority.
Clinton administration officials have expressed dismay at the move, saying that cutting off funding to the Palestinians at this time will not help Yasser Arafat’s attempts to crack down on Hamas.
But with bipartisan congressional cheers, Gilman dug in his heels at a hastily convened hearing in the wake of Hamas’ renewed terror campaign against Israel.
“The hold on these funds will remain until the PLO responds to congressional concerns about its assets, and fulfills its written obligations to root out terrorist groups in its midst,” Gilman said at the hearings Tuesday.
Last month, Gilman placed a hold on about $13 million slated for the Holst Fund, an international bank account of sorts used to pay expenses incurred by the Palestinian Authority.
After the recent spate of bombings, Gilman went public with his decision to withhold the funds.
Before any foreign assistance is sent abroad, the Agency for International Development notifies four relevant committee chairmen as a formality.
At that point, any of the four can delay the spending in an action called a hold.
Gilman has led the charge against funding to the PLO in an effort to win greater compliance from Arafat’s government with the peace accords with Israel.
After the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, the United States pledged $500 million over five years to the PLO.
The United States delivered more than $154 million to the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and 1995. About $80 million in direct assistance is slated for delivery this year. The remaining assistance is channeled through nongovernmental assistance programs.
In a brief interview after the hearing, Gilman said he would not allow any further funds to go to the Palestinian Authority until it “eliminates Hamas,” amends its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel and extradites terrorists to Israel.
Arafat must also stop making statements out of “both sides of his mouth,” Gilman said, referring to Arafat’s habit of saying different things to different audiences.
Since the bombings, the State Department has unsuccessfully pressed Gilman to release the $13 million.
Before the bombings, however, Gilman authorized three separate money transfer after initially putting a hold on them.
While avoiding direct criticism of the committee, witnesses at the hearing urged the lawmakers to continue U.S. assistance.
“Cutting off aid to the Palestinians would weaken the ability of Palestinian authorities to manage the areas under their jurisdiction,” said Robert Pelletreau, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs.
“It would also hamper their ability to fight terror and to show the Palestinian people the benefits of peace at this critical moment.”
Hasan Abd Al-Rahman, chief representative of the PLO in Washington, also asked the committee to release the funds – and even to give more.
Rahman faced a skeptical panel of lawmakers and received an unfavorable response to his call for funding and complaints about Israel’s closure of Gaza and the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres balked at the invitation to send a military official to testify on behalf of the Jewish state’s war on Hamas and its peace policies, Israeli officials here said.
Calling the invitation “unprecedented,” an Israeli official said the testimony could not be cleared by Peres and the military chief of staff in time for the hearing.
In addition to government and Palestinian officials, Steven Emerson, an investigative journalist, testified on Hamas activity, and Steven Spiegel, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, testified about the need for greater anti-terrorism measures.
With the House committee vowing to continue holding up funding for the Palestinians, attention over aid now shifts to the White House.
The State Department recommended in a March 1 report that President Clinton certify the PLO in compliance with its accords with Israel. That certification is required for the funding to continue.
Although most lawmakers expect Clinton to accept the State Department’s recommendation by the end of the month, Pelletreau said the administration would “closely monitor Palestinian performance over the next three weeks and carefully weigh all the facts before the president makes this determination.”