Two of Israel's most vocal and influential supporters in the US Congress want to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority to protest its policy of sentencing to death Arabs who sell land to Jews.

Jesse Helms and Benjamin Gilman, chairmen respectively of the Senate foreign relations and House international relations committees, said in a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright they would oppose US financial aid until the death penalty policy was scrapped.

Slamming the death penalty edict as "totally unacceptable" and "intolerable", Helms and Gilman asked Albright to discover whether the PA was involved in the recent murder of two Palestinian land dealers suspected of selling land to Jews.

"Daily reports of extrajudicial killings, torture and repression of the free press provide ample proof that that respect is sorely lacking among officials of the PA," they wrote. "The US cannot be in the business of subsidizing such a regime.

"Madame Secretary, we have long suspected that the transition from terrorism to leadership would be a difficult, if not impossible, task for the PLO. Clearly, the prerequisites of civil society remain a mystery to many in its ranks."

After several days of vacillating, State Department officials eventually called on May 15 on PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to oppose the policy.

US aid totals $500 million in a five-year programme launched with the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

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