WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration has been given a green light by Congress to spend about $60 million (30 million pounds) to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ presidential guard and for other security expenses, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday.
“We are good to go ... we have addressed Congress’s concerns and there is good political support for this,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said the money, which had been held up by Congress, would also be used for security improvements at Gaza’s main commercial crossings with Israel, for logistics and communications equipment, and other security expenses.
The official said the State Department was officially notified by Congress late on Monday about the decision, which he said would provide much-needed security support to Abbas.
“This has also been done with Israeli agreement and understanding,” the official said of the U.S. funding.
Several U.S. lawmakers had held up the money, fearing it could reach Islamist Hamas, which formed a unity government with Abbas’s Fatah party after months of negotiation.
The United States considers Hamas a terrorist group, and under U.S. law, taxpayer funds cannot go to such a group.
A large chunk of the initial $86 million request had been intended for training Abbas’s security forces, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an army.
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice submitted a new, pared-down plan to Congress, cutting out funds she feared could have reached the “wrong hands.”
“We decided not to proceed with that (funding national-security forces) right now until we could be sure how the system operated with the new national unity government. We haven’t said we will never do that, but just that we will not do it right now,” the senior official said.
Most of the security package — $43.4 million — will be used to “transform and strengthen” Abbas’s presidential guard, according to U.S. government documents.
This sum includes $14.5 million for “basic and advanced training,” $23 million for nonlethal equipment, $2.9 million to upgrade the guard’s facilities and $3 million to provide “capacity building and technical assistance” to the office of Abbas’s national security advisor, a long-time foe of Hamas.
Despite the security funding for Abbas, a Western boycott of the Palestinian Authority would remain in place, the official said.
The United States and other members of the so-called quartet of Middle East peace brokers — Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — have imposed an aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority until it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and signs on to past peace agreements.
However, a Western boycott on diplomatic contacts with non-Hamas ministers of the government has been eased.
U.S. officials met with the new government’s finance minister, Salam Fayyad, during Rice’s visit to the West Bank last month, the senior official said.
Fayyad is embarking on a trip abroad this week to drum up aid for the Palestinian Authority, and will also travel to Washington to attend the International Monetary Fund’s spring meetings.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous in Jerusalem)
Reporting by Sue Pleming, editing by Missy Ryan; email:sue.pleming@Reuters.com; tel:202 898 8393