GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza’s public sector union suspended protests on Wednesday that had paralyzed the local economy and threatened the deal on a Palestinian unity government but said it would resume its action if its members were not promptly paid.
The pay dispute involving some 40,000 public servants erupted last week shortly after Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement formed a unity government of technocrats to end years of feuding.
As part of the protests in the coastal enclave, police loyal to Hamas have been blocking access to local banks since last week. When they pulled back on Wednesday, Gazans formed long queues to withdraw cash from ATM machines.
“We have given the unity government a week to resolve the crisis and find a solution, otherwise, all options are open to escalate protests,” said Mohammed Seyam, head of the Gaza union.
The new government, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, infuriated the public workers hired by Hamas in Gaza over the past seven years by saying it would vet them before paying out salaries - a process that could take months.
The workers are especially resentful because Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah has been paying its own 70,000-strong workforce in Gaza since 2007, even though the majority of them no longer worked under Hamas rule.
“The unity government must not discriminate between employees. Servants who had been employed since 2007 are the ones serving Gaza’s 1.8 million people, while the others have stayed at home,” Seyam told Reuters.
Hamas itself has struggled to pay its staff in recent months due partly to a continued rigid blockade imposed on Gaza by both Israel and Egypt - one of the reasons why the group decided to sign the accord with Abbas and dissolve its own government in the coastal strip.
Jihad Al-Wazir, Palestinian Monetary Authority Governor, said bank branches in Gaza would reopen fully on Thursday.
Gaza Police Spokesman Ayoub Abu Sha‘ar said the policemen deployed outside the banks had been stationed there to protect the banks and to prevent clashes at their doors. They were called back to headquarters after the union announced the suspension of its protests.
A statement by the unity government, issued in Ramallah, said a legal and administrative committee formed to vet civil servants may take four months before making its recommendations.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah officials accused each other of endangering the unity government, which ordinary Palestinians hope can pave the way to genuine reconciliation and long-delayed elections.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said there had been no progress in resolving the salary crisis, while senior Fatah leader Azzam Al-Ahmed on Tuesday held Hamas responsible for current tensions.
Tension between Hamas and Fatah has also risen in the West Bank this week.
On Tuesday, a top Hamas official accused the PA of trying to foil reconciliation with a continued security crackdown on his group in the West Bank. On Wednesday, PA police in Ramallah broke up a protest by a dozen women who said their relatives had been jailed for supporting Hamas.
Israel has urged foreign allies to shun the Palestinian unity government because it enjoys the backing of Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.
But Western governments, including the United States, have pledged to work with Abbas’ new administration.
Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Gareth Jones