JERUSALEM -- The U.S. will cut $100 million in American aid money to Palestinians in Gaza if the territory's Hamas rulers continue with "unwarranted audits" of local American nonprofit organizations, a state department official said Friday.
The American threat came in response to a growing attempt by Hamas to exert control over the international organizations that support the many impoverished Palestinians among Gaza's population of 1.5 million people.
This week, Hamas shut down the U.S.-financed International Medical Corps after it refused to submit to a Hamas audit.
The State Department informed Hamas on Thursday that aid worth $100 million would be halted if the International Medical Corps were not allowed to operate freely.
"If they are not allowed to reopen and operate then obviously we are looking at USAID to suspend all operations until the IMC is allowed to reopen," said a state department official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "These are unwarranted audits and amount to an increase in harassment of humanitarian relief staff."
The U.S., which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, does not have direct contact with the group.
Hamas has told nonprofit groups that they must be registered with the Gaza government and provide financial records.
Mohammed Awad, the Hamas minister of planning in Gaza, said the organizations had agreed to have their accounts vetted through a Hamas-appointed accountant.
"We are not saying there is corruption in these organizations but we are trying to put things in order and to ensure that these organizations are providing services to citizens," he said. "These organizations entered this land on this basis."
Hamas – an Islamic group backed by Iran – has been slowly spreading its influence to local groups that had remained outside its control, possibly viewing them as a political threat.
No significant, organized opposition to Hamas exists in Gaza, which came under the group seized in a violent takeover from rival Palestinians in 2007. That takeover followed a Hamas victory in Palestinian elections the previous year.
Most of the international community views the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which now governs only the West Bank, as the Palestinians' legitimate government.
One such group, a non-governmental organization called the Sharek Youth Forum, was shut down outright last month.
Rizek Abdul Jawad contributed to this report from Gaza City.