RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – Hours after angry civil servants stormed parliament, the Palestinian foreign minister came back Wednesday from a trip to Muslim nations carrying luggage stuffed with $20 million in cash for his money-starved government.
The piles of bills were a sign of Hamas‘ desperation in the face of a Western boycott. The Islamic group, which runs the Palestinian government and whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, has refused to cave in to calls by Western donor nations to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.
With hardships growing daily for Palestinians, dozens of the civil servants burst into the parliament building in the West Bank to demand their overdue salaries.
They threw water bottles, tissue boxes, and other small items at Hamas lawmakers and forced the parliament speaker to flee.
The second attack on the parliament this week, along with the shooting death of a Hamas gunman in the Gaza Strip, cast doubt on renewed efforts by leaders of the rival Fatah and Hamas parties to halt infighting.
Tensions have been high since Hamas defeated Fatah in legislative elections in January. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader who was elected last year, has been in a power struggle with the Islamic group.
Twenty-two people have been killed in factional fighting in recent weeks.
Abbas, a moderate, has been pressuring Hamas to accept a proposal that implicitly recognizes Israel. He has endorsed the plan as a way to restart peace talks and lift crippling international sanctions that have rendered the government unable to pay salaries that sustain one-third of the Palestinian population.
But instead of supporting Abbas’ proposal, Hamas has turned to the Muslim world for help.
Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas member, returned to Gaza after visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, China, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. Palestinian security officials said Zahar was carrying $20 million, which was turned over to the Palestinian treasury. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
A security official at the crossing said Zahar had six pieces of luggage. Health Minister Bassem Naim, who crossed with Zahar, said the cash was in dollars and was stuffed into five of the suitcases. He said it probably would be used to pay salaries.
The border is staffed by members of Abbas’ presidential guard, who are observed by European monitors. The monitors stand alongside the border guards and look at video and X-ray equipment, reporting any suspected violations to Palestinian or Israeli authorities.
Last month, a Hamas official was caught smuggling $800,000 into Gaza. The money was seized but later transferred to the government.
But since Zahar is a VIP, there were no restrictions on his bringing in the cash, the security officials said. Zahar returned home and did not speak to reporters.
Hamas claims it has raised more than $60 million from Muslim and Arab countries. But U.S. pressure on international banks has prevented them from transferring the money into the Palestinian territories.
The Islamic group’s financial woes have caused widespread pain.
In the melee at the parliament building in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the government workers screamed “We are hungry. We are hungry.”
Some demonstrators climbed onto lawmakers’ desks. At one point, security guards broke up a scuffle between two female lawmakers. No injuries were reported.
Parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik, a top Hamas official, fled the hall under heavy guard shortly before the crowd burst in. “I’m not coming back until they leave,” Duaik said as he rushed out.
Order was restored after about 45 minutes, and the parliamentary session resumed.
Most of the demonstrators were thought to be Fatah activists. Later Wednesday, several hundred Hamas supporters marched peacefully in Ramallah to condemn attacks on government buildings.
“We ask, whose interests are you serving through these actions, burning down our institutions?” Hamas leader Farhat Assad asked in a speech. “It is uglier than the practices of the Israeli occupation.”
Earlier this week, hundreds of pro-Fatah security personnel went on a rampage in Ramallah, shooting and burning the parliament and Cabinet buildings in a rage against the Hamas-led government.
Abbas’ power struggle with Hamas, which has spilled over into factional fighting, has centered around control of the powerful, Fatah-dominated security forces.
In the latest fighting on Wednesday, a Hamas gunman was killed in the southern Gaza Strip shortly after Hamas militants attacked the local commander of a Palestinian police force. The commander was shot in the legs.
After the Hamas militant was killed, the group attacked the commander’s home and set it on fire. Hamas activists pulled the commander’s family out of the building before it was torched.
Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed late Tuesday to start a weeklong series of meetings aimed at ending the violence. The two men, joined by senior security commanders, continued their talks in Gaza City on Wednesday.
“We deplore and regret these incidents,” Haniyeh said. “We all are concerned and interested in stopping this deterioration. The government is going to carry out its responsibilities along with the security branches in order to maintain law and order.”
Participants said Wednesday’s talks focused on the new Hamas militia. Hamas deployed the 3,000-member force last month, setting off weeks of bloodshed. Abbas has demanded the force be disbanded.