JERUSALEM – The often unruly Gaza Strip has become a hot zone of Palestinian frustration over the inability of the recently sworn-in Hamas government to pay civil servants.
Many have reportedly not received salaries since March. Distressed police officers in the last few weeks briefly took control of several public buildings and threatened future attacks.
These developments contrast with a declaration made in April by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to the Jerusalem Post that his people will survive on “olives and salt.”
Against this backdrop is a growing showdown between the governing Hamas and its Fatah Party predecessor. Since Hamas won elections in January, the two camps have tried to one-up each other through a series of policy initiatives.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Fatah Party and still in control of certain Palestinian affairs, promised that civil war will not engulf Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, one of the worst incidents of violence between Fatah and Hamas erupted a week ago when supporters began shooting, throwing stones, and hurling firebombs at those on the other side.
Al-Qaeda cells operating in Gaza have threatened to kill senior Fatah members, according to Israeli media reports.
These incidents illustrate that the PA, already dealing with the reality of continual Israeli military strikes, may also be teetering on collapse caused by internal strife.
“Some people expect these acts will be increased but the majority of Palestinian public opinion is against this type of performance,” Naseef Muallem, director-general of the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy in Ramallah told IPS.
At the root of some of Hamas’ problems is Israel’s refusal to transfer about $50-55 million in monthly tax and customs revenue that it collects on behalf of the PA.
The withdrawal of some donor aid by Europe and North America to a Hamas-led government has also struck a huge blow to the struggling PA. The European Union and the United States have traditionally provided $1 billion in funding to the PA annually.
Many Western governments have pledged to support Palestinian humanitarian projects through local aid groups, though they have cut back direct government aid because Hamas refuses to accept Israel’s existence and abandon terrorism.
But despite these assurances, Palestinians are still suffering notably the estimated 150,000 teachers, healthcare workers, and security forces, and the families they support.
Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Arab League this month earmarked about $200 million to help ease the PA’s aid shortfall, but Palestinian government officials are desperately appealing for more money.
Muallem said the government told civil servants the single largest difficulty in transferring tens of millions of dollars in aid to Palestinians is sidestepping roadblocks raised by the U.S. government. The United States has threatened sanctions and lawsuits against banks dealing with Hamas.
Haniyeh is said to be considering French President Jacques Chirac’s proposal to create a World Bank fund to pay the salaries of Palestinian officials.
Palestinians to some extent do point a finger at Hamas for the insecurity and financial instability but, Muallem says, “the main nightmare over our heads is the Israelis.”
Israelis demolish Palestinian homes, put up countless checkpoints that make a short journey unnecessarily long, and kill innocent civilians when the military strikes back at militants in the West Bank and Gaza only further justifying Hamas’ hardline position, Muallem said.
Despite the mayhem in Palestinian society, the opposition is unlikely to score points in the territories because the general public view is that Fatah and the international community are ganging up on Hamas, said Ghassin Khatib, co-editor of Bitter Lemons newsletter and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. Instead, he told IPS, it will boost Hamas’ popularity in the long run.
Although there is deepening tension between Fatah and Hamas, Khatib said he believes it will be resolved through legal, constitutional, and political means and will not necessarily lead to civil war as some have predicted.
As Hamas struggles to fill its empty coffers, whether it remains an organization with a single public face is yet another headache facing its government representatives.