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Arab officials visit cash-strapped Palestinian territory

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Sat Dec 29, 2:08 PM UTC

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Top Arab officials paid a rare visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Saturday to discuss a Palestinian financial crisis that President Mahmoud Abbas hopes will be eased by Arab donations.

Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr congratulated the Palestinians on a successful United Nations status upgrade last month, but stopped short of promising the badly-needed funds.

"Palestine is in need of material and political support," Elaraby told a news conference in the Palestinians' de facto capital of Ramallah.

"Arab countries agreed at their Baghdad summit (in March) for an Arab safety net of $100 million dollars each month, but unfortunately none of this has been achieved yet," he said.

Palestinian were cheered by a strong majority in the United Nations recognizing them as an "observer state" on November 29 but have struggled to get Arab support to make up $100 million in shortfalls left by Israeli sanctions following the U.N. move.

Elaraby is the first Arab League Chief to visit Ramallah, but he and other prominent Arab and Islamic leaders, including the Egyptian prime minister, met Abbas's Palestinian Hamas rivals in Gaza during their brief war with Israel last month.

QATARI LEADER

Hamas, which split from the West Bank after it seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, also won a diplomatic coup by receiving Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, ruler of the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar, who pledged $400 million in aid for the impoverished territory in October.

The emir postponed a visit to Ramallah he had announced this month, disappointing West Bank officials who had hoped he would arrive bearing gifts of cash.

The Gaza visits broke years of diplomatic quarantine for the Islamist Hamas group, which refuses to recognize Israel or relinquish its arms, and increased the isolation of the dovish, Western-backed Ramallah government.

West Bank officials have watched with worry as uprisings in the Arab world divert attention from their diplomatic strategy, which has failed to achieve an independent Palestinian state.

Hamas militants, by contrast, have been heartened as fellow-Islamists rise to power in Egypt and elsewhere.

Abbas has accused Israel of "piracy" after it withheld customs revenues it collects on the Palestinians' behalf, citing months of utilities bills Ramallah owes Israeli companies.

The financial crisis has forced the Palestinian Authority to delay salary payments to West Bank employees, who have gone on strike in protest. Abbas has responded by saying he might give up power and compel Israel to take on the Palestinians' affairs.

"Sit in the chair here instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority," Abbas warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with the Israeli Haaretz newspaper this week.

"I won't do anything as long as there are diplomatic negotiations," he said. "But if the stalemate continues...what's left for us to do?"

(Reporting By Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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