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Masked Palestinian police sealed off a main road in the central Gaza town of Khan Younis on Saturday and stormed a government building in anger over not receiving their salaries from the Hamas-led government.
The gunmen surrounded the building, where town councilors have their offices, taking positions on the roof and on balconies and firing in the air. The Palestinian Chamber of Commerce also has offices there.
The protest was one of the first signs of discontent with the new government, which took office late last month.
Western nations have cut off aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, demanding Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel also cut off the monthly transfer of about US$50 million (â‚¬41.34 million) in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians.
Israeli officials say they hope the financial pressure forces Hamas to moderate or stirs enough popular discontent to remove the government.
With salaries for the government's 140,000 employees two weeks overdue, about 50 masked policemen protested Saturday by shutting Khan Younis' main road, which links the central Gaza town with the rest of the Gaza Strip.
The men, who identified themselves as security officers, were not in uniform and had covered their faces with scarves and shirts.
Sporadically firing rifles in the air, the gunmen paralyzed Khan Younis, forcing workers traveling from northern Gaza to get out of their cars and walk more than a kilometer (half a mile) to get into town.
Those heading to the southern town of Rafah had to take back roads.
Stores throughout the town were closed and residents gathered to watch the demonstration. Dozens of schoolchildren left their school after the angry gunmen fired outside their building.
During the protest, several of the security officials stormed the local government building.
"We want salaries. We want the government to live up to its responsibilities," said a leader of the protest who gave his name only as Abu Hassan. "If they don't have the ability to secure our salaries and to guarantee good living conditions for the people, they either have to step aside or to ask the people what the next step must be. They cannot act alone."
The protest came a day after Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told thousands of supporters that his government would not cave into financial pressure.
"Attempts to destroy this government and put obstacles before it and disrupt it will only be met with more steadfastness, resolve and solidarity," Haniyeh told a rally Friday.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar also began a fund-raising tour of Arab nations seeking new aid, but Arab states have been reluctant to back up their rhetorical support for the Palestinians with money.
The protest Saturday underscored that the Palestinians, whose economy was crushed by five years of fighting with Israel, have little tolerance for further economic hardship in the wake of Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections.
"We respect the result of the election, and we respect the people and the government, but this doesn't mean we have to starve to death," Abu Hassan said. "The government is talking about alternatives to secure money for salaries, but until now they have showed us nothing."
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