Hamas Payroll Powder Keg With Short Fuse

GAZA / YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -

Tensions between Fatah and Hamas are close to the breaking point over the non-payment of salaries to Gaza’s public sector workers, raising the risk of a return to conflict in the territory, officials say.

The ceasefire struck last month to end Israel’s war with Hamas included stipulations that the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, should take over civil administration in Gaza from Hamas.

Hamas thought that would mean its 40,000 employees in Gaza, who have not been paid for months and are growing restive, would be taken care of via the PA payroll, which already supports 90,000 public sector workers in Yehudah and Shomron and a further 70,000 in Gaza, all linked to Fatah.

Not only can the PA not afford to pay all those extra workers, but international donors who support the PA budget, including the European Union, first want a thorough audit of workers and cutbacks to the bloated payroll, which costs more than $2 billion a year. Paying the Hamas salaries as well would add a further $420 million.

Equally, Fatah is unwilling to give any support to Hamas until it stops running what Abbas calls a “shadow government” in Gaza and fully commits to the unity government they agreed to last April.

As a stop-gap measure, the Hamas-controlled Finance Ministry in Gaza announced on Wednesday it would make partial payments of between 1,000 and 4,500 shekels ($275 and $1,240) to Hamas employees on Thursday.

But time is running short; the ceasefire signed in Cairo on Aug. 26 allowed a month for progress to be made on finalizing the peace deal, including reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and steps by Israel and Egypt to loosen their blockade on Gaza.

“There is a very real risk of a return to violence if these tensions over salaries are not resolved as soon as possible,” said John Gatt-Rutter, the EU representative to the Palestinian Territories.