Less than a week after its inauguration, the Hamas-Fatah unity government is already facing its first crisis as it remains unclear which party will pay salaries to tens of thousands of Hamas employees in the Gaza Strip.
It turns out that Hamas was hoping that the reconciliation deal it signed with Fatah in April, which led to the formation of the unity government, would absolve the Islamist movement of its financial obligations toward its employees.
That plan was, in fact, the main reason Hamas agreed to the reconciliation accord with Fatah. Over the past few years, Hamas has been facing a severe financial crisis, particularly in the wake of Egypt's decision to destroy smuggling tunnels along its border with the Gaza Strip.
Hamas says that the new unity government is responsible for paying the salaries of its employees, but Fatah and Palestinian Authority [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas insist that this is not their responsibility.
The dispute between the two parties erupted into violence last week when hundreds of angry Hamas employees attacked a number of banks in the Gaza Strip after discovering that the unity government had failed to pay their salaries.
Hamas "civil servants" in the streets of Gaza. (Image source: YouTube video)
The Hamas employees also attacked PA civil servants who arrived to collect their salaries, which were transferred to their bank accounts by the unity government .
In response, thousands of PA civil servants, who were unable to withdraw their salaries, staged a protest in the Gaza Strip at which they accused Hamas "militias" of closing the banks and preventing them from receiving their money.
General Adnan Damiri, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank, strongly condemned the attacks on the banks and civil servants, which he said was carried out by Hamas "thugs."
Earlier this week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas added fuel to the fire when he declared, during a visit to Cairo, that he does not intend to pay salaries to Hamas employees before the two parties reach an agreement on who is ultimately responsible for paying them.
Abbas said that more than 58% of the PA budget was already going to the Gaza Strip. Most of the funds were being paid as salaries to PA civil servants who lost their jobs after Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip in 2007, he disclosed.
The dispute over money between Hamas and Fatah shows that each group signed the reconciliation agreement for its own interests.
Hamas was hoping that the unity government would rid it of its financial crisis and lay the burden on Abbas. Hamas is now telling Abbas, "If you want a unity government headed by your prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, then you should also be responsible for paying salaries to our employees, especially in light of our agreement to dissolve the Hamas government."
Abbas, for his part, was hoping that the reconciliation deal with Hamas would allow him to show the world that he represents not only the West Bank, but also the Gaza Strip.
In other words, Abbas's deal with Hamas is aimed at showing the world that he is a legitimate president who represents all Palestinians, and not just a powerless leader of parts of the West Bank that are controlled by his Palestinian Authority.
One thing is certain: both Hamas and Fatah hope to use the unity government as a ploy to attract financial aid from the international community, particularly Western donors. The unity government, which is backed by Fatah and Hamas (designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.), actually serves as a front for receiving funds from the international community for both parties .
Abbas, however, has realized that Western donors are not going to fund a government that pays salaries to thousands of Hamas employees, including members of the movement's armed wing, Ezaddin al-Kassam.
Meanwhile, the PA and Hamas have turned to some Arab countries for help. According to Palestinian sources, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, has promised to pay the salaries of the Hamas employees for May. But it is not clear whether the emir will continue to channel funds to the unity government in the coming months.
Hamdallah, the prime minister of the new unity government, says he is now planning a tour of several Arab countries in a bid to convince their leaders to provide the Palestinians with financial aid.
Even if Hamdallah succeeds in getting a few hundred million dollars from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, the crisis over the salaries of the Hamas employees will continue to hover over his head.
This, of course, does not bode well for the future of the reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah. All that is left for the two parties to do now is to try to persuade the Western donors to increase their financial aid to the unity government in order to solve the crisis over the wages of the Hamas employees.
It remains to be seen whether American and European taxpayers will agree to pay salaries to thousands of Hamas civil servants and militiamen in the Gaza Strip, who have not renounced their intent to commit acts of terrorism or destroy Israel.