Despite Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's objection, Israel decided on Wednesday to release tax money it had been withholding from the Palestinians since they won membership to the UN cultural agency UNESCO a month ago, a government official said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner cabinet, facing international pressure, voted to unfreeze the funds, amounting to about $100 million a month, which Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, the official said.
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The cash, which includes duties on goods imported to the Palestinian territories, is vital for paying civil servants' salaries.
Palestinian security forces to receive salaries (Photo: AP)
In an official statement, the inner cabinet said Israel would track the money's use, and in the event that it is funneled toward terrorists, it will cut those amounts from future transactions.
Lieberman has claimed that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been using the funds to support terror and Palestinian prisoners released in the exchange deal for Gilad Shalit.
The ministers added that Israel would consider freezing the tax collection funds should the Palestinians resume unilateral attempts at recognition in the UN or form a unity government with Hamas.
A senior Hamas official said in an interview published Wednesday that Western-backed Palestinian President Abbas is not serious about reconciling with political rival Hamas despite public statements to the contrary.
The official, Mahmoud Zahar, said Abbas "is not interested in achieving" a deal with Hamas, allegedly because the US and Israel oppose it.
"Reconciliation will not be achieved at all," Zahar told the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat.
Abbas and Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, met last week to try to move head with a reconciliation deal they reached in principle in May. After their meeting, the two leaders said they opened a new page in relations and narrowed their differences. It was their first serious sitdown since Hamas wrested the Gaza Strip from Abbas in a violent takeover in 2007.
Earlier this week, Abbas moved a step further, setting May 4 as the date for elections that are to be held as part of the reconciliation agreement.
However, it remains unclear whether Abbas is engaged in political maneuvering or serious about the deal, which could prompt a Western backlash, including political isolation and possible cuts in foreign funding of Abbas' West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
In a punitive measure, Israel froze the transfers on Nov. 1, a day after the Palestinians won UNESCO membership over Israeli and US objections as part of their drive for statehood at the United Nations in the absence of peace talks.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has said the Palestinian Authority would not be able to pay the salaries of about 150,000 workers this month if Israel did not release the money.
The Israeli government official said the inner cabinet decided that tax revenues for October and November would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations stalled shortly after talks were renewed in September 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Reuters, AP contributed to the report
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