Faruq al-Shara, the Syrian vice-president, said Bashar al-Assad, the president, "has authorised the launch of a grassroots campaign to collect donations for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority", the official Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) reported.

Al-Shara said bank accounts into which people could deposit money would be opened and their details publicised by the media.

Islamist group Hamas swept to victory in January's parliamentary poll, but has been unable to pay thousands of government workers because of aid cuts. The United States and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group.

"I hope that Arab countries will not be swayed by the pretext that these funds would be used for terrorist activities," Sana quoted al-Shara as saying at a joint press conference with Akhar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president.

Real catastrophe

Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader living in Syria, said the aid "will serve to avoid a real catastrophe in Palestine".

"Islamic nations should support us financially, politically and spiritually against the US and Israeli drive to starve the Palestinians," he said on Saturday in Tehran, where he was attending a conference on supporting the Palestinians.

Meshaal said the new Hamas-led Palestinian administration had inherited not only an empty treasury, but also $1.7 billion in debt.

He revealed that $170 million a month is needed to run the administration, out of which $115 million goes to paying salaries.