One of the first tests of how the newly reunified Palestinian government would meld public workforces together stumbled badly as Hamas security forces shut down banks in the Gaza Strip on Thursday amid scuffles after the Palestinian Authority did not pay employees from the movement.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority paid wages on Wednesday to its 180,000 West Bank and Gaza employees, as it does during the first week of each month. However, it did not make payments to Hamas' 40,000 public employees.
Thousands of public employees rushed to Gaza banks' ATMs on Wednesday night after the Ramallah-based Finance Ministry announced it was going to pay salaries through bank machines. The regular Palestinian Authority employees in the coastal strip, most of whom have not actually worked since Hamas seized control of the region seven years ago, found their usual salaries deposited in their bank accounts.
But Hamas government employees, expecting wages from the Palestinian Authority since the unity government between it and Hamas was sworn in Monday, were angered to find out that they were not paid.
Fights erupted as Hamas employees tried to prevent Palestinian Authority employees from collecting their wages. Hamas security forces, who were also expecting to be paid from Ramallah, joined the melee and prevented Palestinian Authority employees from using the ATMs, witnesses and radio reports said.
Palestinian Authority spokesman Ehab Bseiso criticized the way the Gaza security forces dealt with the situation.
"This is not the way crisis-management is handled," he told a news conference in Ramallah on Thursday.
The Finance Ministry prepared the bank list for payment to public employees covering May before the unity government was sworn in, he said. Unifying government agencies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and possibly incorporating employees hired by Hamas will take time and require legal and administrative work, Bseiso said.
Committees will be set up to solve these issues, he said, and in particular to look into the addition of Hamas' 40,000 public employees to the payroll of the Palestinian Authority, which is overburdened with an inflated public workforce and short on cash.
Gaza police denied that their officers closed the banks or prevented employees from withdrawing their salaries through the ATMs.
"The police had nothing to do with the decision to stop paying salaries for Gaza employees," said police spokesman Ayyoub Abu Shaar in a statement. "The decision to stop paying the salaries was made due to the security situation and the police presence around banks came to prevent any lawlessness or fights between people."
Hamas said in a statement that its Gaza leader and former prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, telephoned the emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, to ask him "to help the consensus government to carry out its financial obligation toward the Gaza employees."
It said the Qatari leader has agreed to help without giving any further details.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Palestinian Authority officials exchanged accusations over the salaries issue, with Hamas authorities accusing the Palestinian Authority of violating the terms of the reconciliation agreement, while officials in the West Bank accused Hamas of trying to undermine reconciliation efforts.
Abukhater is a special correspondent.