GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — An argument over money set off the first serious dispute Monday between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamic militant group Hamas since the long-time rivals formed a unity government a week ago.
The standoff over salary payments for more than 40,000 government employees — hired by Hamas during its seven-year rule of the Gaza Strip — highlights the volatile nature of the relationship between Abbas and Hamas.
Security forces loyal to Hamas have kept banks in Gaza closed since last week to pressure Abbas into paying the salaries of the ex-civil servants.
The unity government of 17 technocrats, backed by Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement, is to administer both the autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories on opposite sides of Israel.
Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, but growing money troubles in recent months pushed the militants into the unity deal with Abbas.
In Gaza, the deal is a recipe for potential instability. Hamas remains the de facto power on the ground with thousands of armed men under its control, while the Western-backed Abbas is the main conduit for foreign aid needed to pay salaries.
Last week, the unity government began disbursing salaries to some 150,000 civil servants loyal to Abbas, but said it will take time to find a way to pay the former Hamas employees. In response, scuffles erupted outside cash machines in Gaza between those waiting to withdraw their salaries and former Hamas employees. Hamas police forces closed the banks.
Among the 150,000 civil servants on the Abbas payroll are tens of thousands in Gaza who received salaries for the past seven years on condition that they did not work for a Hamas administration.
Khalil al-Haye, a senior Hamas official, said Monday that the banks can't reopen until a solution is found.
"We demand that President Abbas instruct the government to pay the salaries of the government employees quickly," he said. "How come the government pays the salaries of non-working employees and not of those who are working?"
Al-Haye claimed that angry former Hamas employees would not enable Abbas loyalists to withdraw their salaries from cash machines. However, Hamas security forces were deployed outside closed banks Monday, not former Hamas civil servants.
In comments earlier this week, Abbas indicated he is in no hurry to pay the Hamas loyalists. He said Hamas should keep paying their salaries "until we agree" on a solution. He also criticized the protests by Hamas loyalists over the salary issue, saying it was a "bad sign."
The closure of Gaza's banks has meant new hardship for Gaza's 1.7 million people.
"We are victims of Hamas and Fatah when they agree and when they disagree," said Fathi Saleh, 51, an employee in a non-governmental organization. "I have been cashless for days. Today, I borrowed money from my brother. ... Otherwise I wouldn't be able to leave my house. I couldn't buy fuel for the car or food for the family."