Israel will hold up an $89 million cash transfer to the Palestinians planned for this week, the Israeli finance minister said Sunday, in the country's first tangible step against a new unity arrangement between Palestinian factions.
Israel wants assurances that any money transferred to the Palestinians will not reach the militant Hamas organization, which is set to become part of the Palestinian government, said the minister, Yuval Steinitz.
"I think the burden of proof is on the Palestinians, to make it certain, to give us guarantees that money delivered by Israel is not going to the Hamas, is not going to a terrorist organization, is not going to finance terror operations against Israeli citizens," Steinitz said ahead of the Israeli government's weekly meeting.
Israel collects some tax and customs fees for the Palestinians under peace agreements of the 1990s. Israel has held up cash transfers several times in the past decade, citing concerns that the money was being used to fund attacks against Israelis.
The framework Palestinian unity deal announced last week aims at a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah, backed by the West, dominates the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank and officially seeks an accommodation with Israel. The Iran-backed Hamas rules Gaza and officially remains committed to Israel's destruction.
The details of the deal, set to be signed at a ceremony in Cairo on Wednesday, remain unclear. It is meant to lead immediately to a transitional government and new elections within one year.
The current Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, said the Israeli move Sunday would not affect the unity plan.
"We definitely will not stop the reconciliation because of these threats, and we are in contact with all the influential international forces and the international parties which can affect this matter to stop Israel from taking these steps," he said during a visit to Bethlehem.
In Gaza, Hamas official Khalil al-Haya called the Israeli decision "blackmail" and urged the sides to move ahead with the reconciliation agreement, which he said would "bring good for our people and make us able to defeat the occupation of our land."
The Israeli government says the unity deal rules out the renewal of deadlocked peace talks and threatens Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank.
The agreement "should worry not only all Israeli citizens but all those across the world who want to see peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.
"Peace will be possible only with those who want to live in peace beside us, and not with those who want to destroy us," he said.
A previous attempt at a Palestinian unity government, in 2007, lasted four months and ended in deadly infighting and Hamas' takeover of Gaza.
During that brief time, Hamas floated plans for extended cease-fires with Israel, indicating a slight softening of the organization's policies. But it refused the international community's demand to recognize Israel and renounce violence.