It has become clear over recent days that the crisis created by the kidnapping of three Israeli teens is severely straining the Fatah-Hamas unity pact, signed in April, and implemented via a new “technocratic cabinet” earlier this month. A senior Fatah official was quoted as saying that if Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping, the unity deal will be “void”. Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah have been trading barbs about whether the Palestinian security forces should be helping find the missing teens.
Yet even before the recent kidnapping of the three Israeli teens, allegedly by Hamas, the new Palestinian unity-government was already in crisis, less than two weeks after President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the new Cabinet. Though it was not widely covered in the international media, there was already confrontation on the streets of Gaza -a sign that the unity deal struck between Fatah and Hamas on April 23, which aimed to end a seven-year political and territorial divide, was going to be hard to maintain.
(You can find AIJAC’s assessment of the Palestinian unity government here.)
It is widely known that the economic situation in Gaza is poor. Yet, Gaza’s economy took a further hit over recent weeks, exacerbated by infighting between Fatah and Hamas over paying public-servant salaries. Police forces in Gaza, who are supposed to operate under the mandate of the new unity-government headed by Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, and President Abbas, ordered the closure of all banks for six days.
This comes in the wake of a week of ‘toing and froing’ over who is supposed to pay the salaries of Hamas’ 40,000 clerks and security personnel. Avi Issacharof reports in the Times of Israel that as part of the terms of the reconciliation pact between Hamas and Fatah, it was agreed that “a special commission” would evaluate the salaries of the Hamas officials as well as who will continue to work for the new unity-government and in what capacity. However, the commission is yet to complete its task and in the interim, Hamas and Fatah have been unable to agree on who should pay their salaries; the new unity-government under PA President Abbas or Hamas?
It was on Hamas’ orders that police closed the banks to “collectively punish” everyone on the PA payroll. As a result, more than 700,000 people in Gaza, around half the population, were unable to collect their salaries through local banks and ATMs. This peeved the remainder of Gaza’s residents, who are not employed by either government and just wanted to access their paychecks and get on with everyday life.
Issacharof says, “when the time came to receive May’s wages, 40,000 Palestinians, almost all of them affiliated with Hamas, found themselves without salaries in the bank.”
“Hamas is looking for a way to force Abbas to transfer the money. Its solution was to prevent the 50,000 employees of the old PA government from reaching the banks- workers who have been receiving salaries since June 2007 without actually going to work.”
Indeed, this would suggest that despite the Palestinian unity agreement, little has changed in Gaza where Hamas remains the “de-facto power on the ground.” Analysis suggests that police and security services in Gaza continue to take their orders from Hamas rather than from Prime Minister Hamdallah and President Abbas based in Ramallah.
Meanwhile, despite the new agreement with Hamas, even before the recent kidnapping crisis, Abbas was saying he would continue security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank. But ironically, the target of such joint security operations has principally been Hamas, with Abbas instructing his security forces to ‘crack down’ on the terrorist organisation’s activities in areas under the authority of the Palestinian Authority. This highlights the complexity surrounding the new unity government. While there has been much talk of ‘unity’ little appears to have changed on the ground and the two movements seem as disjointed as ever.
Speaking with the New York Times on June 12 about the newly formed government and the dispute in Gaza over public-servant salaries, Prime Minister Hamdallah noted that he “still lacked any authority in Gaza.”
Reporting on the hour-long interview held with the Palestinian leader, NYT reporters, Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner, wrote:
“Asked when he would visit Gaza, Mr. Hamdallah was silent for a long moment and then said…”
“We haven’t set a time for that. You have to be realistic – we’re not in control.”
The story went on to note:
“Hamdallah said that it was not him or his ministers that caused the reopening of the banks in Gaza, but rather, it was public pressure and ‘the intervention of a monetary official’ that held sway with Hamas officials.”
Moreover, almost immediately after the swearing in of the new government, on June 9, Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas in Ramallah, clashed with Hamas supporters who were chanting anti-Israel slogans and showing their support for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Hamas leader, Hassan Yousef, who was involved in the clash, told Haaretz that PA security officials told the protestors that they could no longer raise Hamas flags in public.
“This is a very bad sign for the future of the reconciliation,” he said.
The Hamas employee salary dispute is still not resolved and Israeli officials are reportedly concerned that the dispute could directly affect Israeli security. Avi Issacharoff warns that if the 40,000 salaries aren’t paid, Hamas members are planning to launch a general strike, which would include its security personnel.
“For Israel, this means that the same members of the ‘Restraining Force’ operating on the Israeli border to prevent rocket fire will leave their posts, and on Hamas’ orders will head home.”
“This appears to be another attempt to pressure Abbas to agree to pay the salaries. But it may result in Islamic Jihad members and Salafists being tempted to fire rockets into Israel,” he says.
This issue of Hamas’ rocket capability formed part of the focus of Brig-Gen Itai Brun’s (who heads the Military Intelligence’s research department) recent address to the annual Herziliya Conference, on June 2. At the gathering of Israeli politicians, military personnel and security experts Brun noted that Hamas and Islamic Jihad now have rockets with an 80km range, enough to hit Tel-Aviv and the surrounding Gush Dan area. According to Haaretz, Brun further warned that these terrorist groups “are also working to make their missiles more accurate – for instance, by attaching GPS-based guidance systems. Such missiles can strike both military and civilian targets in Israel with a high level of accuracy.”
In other words, from Israel’s point of view, the unity agreement does not affect the reality that Gaza remains an enclave under Hamas military control and that Hamas remains determined to find ways to attack Israel whenever politically convenient. The unity agreement is not only unlikely to change this reality, but likely to provide Hamas with political cover to continue their activities with less international scrutiny, and with Israel’s ability to respond to provocations curtailed by a fiction that Gaza is now under the nominal control of the “moderate” Palestinian Authority. Is it any wonder that Israel remains determined not to recognise the unity government and to convince others also not to do so?