Europe, along with the United States and Russia, agreed Tuesday to continue critical funding to Palestinians but warned election victors Hamas that its future government must give up violence and recognize Israel.
Funding will continue but will be stopped if Hamas does not renounce violence
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, however, derided US and European threats to put financial pressure on his Islamist group as being "in vain", saying they amounted to forcing it to abandon its struggle for freedom.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her partners in the Quartet for Middle East peace -- the United Nations, Russia and the European Union -- pledged overnight Monday in London to keep money flowing into Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's interim caretaker administration.
"We do believe that Abu Mazen needs to be supported," said Rice, using Abbas's nom de guerre, ensuring that funds will be available to pay for Palestinian police officers and civil servants.
But the Quartet warned that the Palestinians' critical lifeline of foreign aid could be cut off unless Hamas -- perpetrator of deadly suicide bomb attacks on Israelis -- abandons violence, recognizes Israel and embraces the diplomatic "road map" to peace.
That blueprint to peace envisions an independent Palestinian nation existing side by side with the Jewish state.
The EU has given about 500 million euros ($613 million dollars) annually to the Palestinians since 2003, but the decisive win by Hamas has left the bloc in a quandary because the group figures on both US and EU terrorist blacklists.
In a statement the Quartet said it believed "that the Palestinian people have the right to expect that a new government will address their aspirations for peace and statehood."
Conditions to aid focus on the end of violence
The election victory brought violent scenes to the streets of Gaza as Fatah and Hamas supporters clashed.
But the statement stressed that "future assistance to any future government would be reviewed by donors against the government's commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map."
With three months likely to pass before a new Palestinian government is formed, the Quartet's stance amounts to a watch period for Hamas to change its stripes if it wants to be accepted as a serious partner in the peace process.
The Islamist movement swiftly rejected the Quartet's demands. "The conditions posed by the Quartet constitute pressure which serves the interests of Israel and not the Palestinian people," Hamas MP and spokesman Mosheer al-Masri told AFP.
Al-Masri added that if the international aid continued to flow "the next (Hamas) government will ensure that it is used according to the law and not allow corruption.
Democracy won in Palestinian elections, says Hamas
Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal accused the west of failing in democracy.
In an opinion piece in the British daily The Guardian newspaper published Tuesday, Hamas supreme leader Meshaal said the West was punishing the Palestinian people for resisting oppression and striving for justice by taking such a hard line.
"The day Hamas won the Palestinian democratic elections the world's leading democracies failed the test of democracy," Meshaal wrote. The West is missing a chance to open a "new chapter" in its relations with the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, he added.
"Our message to the US and EU governments is this: your attempt to force us to give up our principles or our struggle is in vain."
A senior Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, appealed earlier Monday in Gaza City to the Quartet to meet the radical Islamist organization for "a dialogue without preliminary conditions and in a spirit of neutrality."
Pressed on how long the European Union -- a major contributor to Palestinian coffers -- would be prepared to give Hamas, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: "I think that it will depend how long it takes in time for the formation of the government."
He referred to estimates of three months. "That is the time in which they have to clarify all these things. If we have not got any sign that they move in that direction it will be very difficult," Solana said.
Putin sees refusal of aid as a "mistake"
President Vladimir Putin approved the continuation of aid and called a halt would be a mistake.
Despite agreeing with the Quartet in London, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a slightly different stance later on Tuesday. Speaking from Moscow Putin said that Russia did not share the West's official view that Hamas was a "terrorist" organization but added that this did not mean the movement could expect Moscow's unqualified support.
"Hamas must leave its radical declarations, must recognize Israel's right to exist and normalize contact with the international community," Putin said. He described the movement's unexpected recent election victory as a "serious blow" to US efforts to broker a Middle East peace settlement.
Hamas must make the transition from being a radical opposition movement to the governing party of the Palestinian people, Putin said, adding however that the fact of Hamas' coming to power in the Palestinian territories was not sufficient grounds for cutting off aid to the Palestinians.
"Refusal of aid to the Palestinian people would be a mistake in any event," he said, adding: "Our foreign ministry has never described Hamas as a terrorist organization."