By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Employees who have been on separate payrolls of rival Palestinian governments traded blows at Gaza banks on Thursday when those hired by Hamas did not receive their wages under a new unity administration.
Since Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, the PA has kept paying some 70,000 public employees in the coastal enclave.
The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, which has faced a cash crunch since Egypt closed border smuggling tunnels, has 40,000 civil servants and security personnel on its own books. The public employees were hired by Hamas after the 2007 takeover, and have not been paid in weeks.
The inauguration on Monday of a unity government under a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation pact raised expectations among Hamas-hired servants that they would now receive their wages. Thousands joined their PA-payroll colleagues at Gaza ATMs on Thursday, hoping to withdraw their salaries.
But the Hamas employees came away empty-handed, and a spokesman for the unity government said they still had to be vetted by a committee before they could be added to the new leadership's payroll.
Fistfights between PA and Hamas employees broke out and club-wielding Palestinian riot police pushed them away from the cash machines, which were then closed, along with Gaza bank branches, to prevent more violence, according to an Interior Ministry spokesman.
"You call this a reconciliation? We should all eat or no one does," shouted one employee of the former Hamas-run government.
"Why is it our fault? Go and ask your Hamas leaders who signed the deal - why prevent us from feeding our families?" countered a PA civil servant.
Contacts were under way between officials from Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement to try and resolve the crisis.
"Be patient and give the unity government a chance to work," said its spokesman, Ehab Bessaiso.
Palestinian officials hope the payroll of the former Hamas government, an entity shunned by the West over Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel or renounce violence, can now be met with international donor funds provided to the PA.
Despite Israeli objections, the United States and the European Union, main donors to the PA, have accepted the unity government, noting that it is comprised of politically unaffiliated technocrats and is committed to the principles of a peaceful solution with Israel.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Ralph Boulton)