British relations with Palestinians at breaking point

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Even before the dramatic events at Jericho prison in the West Bank, Britain's support for the Palestinian Authority had been strained by Gaza's gradual descent into chaos before the Palestinian elections and by the election of the extremist Hamas.

Kidnappings - including the abduction of the British aid worker Kate Burton and her parents in December - blood feuds and violence linked to the non-payment of wages meant the number of international staff remaining in Gaza had declined to only a few dozen in the past year.

European Union monitors manning an international checkpoint in Gaza following the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza last year have fled their posts on at least one occasion. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told MPs last night in an emergency statement that the Foreign Office was warning against all travel to Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Straw watched appalled yesterday as television news showed film of the British cultural centre in Gaza on fire. He revealed that he had ordered the monitors to be withdrawn because he feared for their safety after the threat against British nationals increased since the election of Hamas in January.

The Foreign Secretary had been urged by his own officials to withdraw the monitors last year but refused because he did not believe that the threat then was so great.

Britain had been instrumental in the agreement in April 2002 reached with Israel, the Palestinians and the Americans under which 14 British guards were deployed with US personnel at the prison in Jericho. The Anglo-American initiative enabled the then Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to leave his compound in Ramallah which had been placed under siege by Israeli forces.

All bets are now off between Britain and the PA. Since the election of Hamas, which has refused to recognise Israel and forswear violence, the UK had been reviewing its support for the PA on a case by case basis. Since the election of Hamas, Britain has had police officers in Gaza training Palestinians and had planned to expand their work this year. Britain also contributed to the Rafah border crossing monitors.

In the 2005-06 fiscal year, Britain contributed £30m to the PA in bilateral assistance, and £30m through the European Commission.