WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pledged an infusion of $400 million in aid for housing, school construction and business development in the Palestinian territories on Wednesday, saying after a one-on-one meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that the situation in Gaza is "inherently unstable."
Obama had planned the White House meeting to talk mainly about the Middle East peace process. But in the aftermath of a deadly May 31 Israeli assault on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, the two leaders ended up focusing instead on the ongoing blockade of Gaza and its effects on the people who live there.
"We agree that Israelis have the right to prevent arms from entering into Gaza that can be used to launch attacks into Israeli territory," Obama told reporters after his meeting with Abbas in the White House. "But we also think that it is important for us to explore new mechanisms so that we can have goods and services, and economic development, and the ability of people to start their own businesses, and to grow the economy and provide opportunity within Gaza."
In response, Israeli officials announced Wednesday that they would relax some border restrictions on Gaza, allowing in some snack foods and spices that had previously been off-limits for delivery. Palestinian leaders dismissed the change as inconsequential because it does not allow admission of more urgently needed items like fabric, fishing equipment, spare parts and electronics.
The Obama administration's promise of aid includes money to increase access to clean drinking water, create jobs and build schools and affordable housing.
Last year, U.S. officials pledged $900 million for both Gaza and the West Bank, but acknowledged the difficulty of distributing the funds, especially because Hamas controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization. The aid announced Wednesday may be distributed through organizations performing relief work, State Department officials said.
Abbas emphasized the need to lift what he called the "Israeli siege of the Palestinian people," by opening all crossings.