U.S. House Votes to Tighten PA Sanctions

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives yesterday voted to further choke off the flow of U.S. aid to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, drawing the displeasure of the Bush administration, which says the legislation goes too far, and dividing the pro-Israel lobbying community.

The measure, which passed easily with 361 votes in favor and 37 opposed, makes it very difficult for non-governmental groups working in the West Bank and Gaza - with the exception of health programs - to receive funding, denies visas to members of the Palestinian Authority, bans contacts with Hamas because of its classification as a terrorist organization and limits the president's authority to waive the aid bans.

"The United States must make it ambiguously clear that we will not support such a terrorist regime, that we will not directly or indirectly allow American taxpayer funds to be used to perpetuate the leadership of an Islamic jihadist group," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a chief sponsor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.

The vote comes as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House to discuss Israel's plans to impose a West Bank agreement on the Palestinians. Olmert addresses a joint session of Congress today.

The White House, which has already cut off funds for the Hamas-led government until it recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces acts of terrorism, criticized the bill as unneeded and overreaching in its restrictions.

The measure must still be considered in the Senate, where Sentors Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden have a similar but somewhat less restrictive bill that carves out more exceptions for PA officials not affiliated to Hamas.

In the event of Senate passage, negotiations would be needed with the House to mesh the two bills before Bush could sign the law. The House bill also withholds money from the United Nations equal to sums provided to the Palestinian Authority, restricts travel by PA officials in the United States and limits direct assistance through international financial institutions.

In three hours of sometimes emotional debate on the House floor Monday night, lawmakers were unanimous in condemning Hamas, which rose to power in January elections, but differed sharply on the wisdom of the comprehensive sanctions outlined in the bill. "The issue is not Hamas," said Rep. David Price, a critic of the bill. "The issue is rather the bill's ban on aid to all nongovernmental groups, private groups and organizations, many of whom are diametrically opposed to Hamas' philosophy."

But Representative Tom DeLay said Palestinians "have made their choice" in voting Hamas into power. "American aid to the Palestinian people must be predicated on their rejection of terrorism."

Pro-Israel groups have also split on the issue, with the largest lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), pushing for its passage while other groups, including the Israel Policy Forum and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have come out against it.