PA on verge of bankruptcy, civil war

Analysis: Struggling to make ends meet, Hamas is bringing Gaza closer to chaos.

brawl in gaza 298  (photo credit: AP [file])
brawl in gaza 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Asked to sum up the achievements of his cabinet one month after entering office, embattled Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said he was confident the Hamas cabinet would successfully complete its four-year term in office. "We're always optimistic," he said. "Our optimism stems from our belief and determination that we must continue the process until the liberation of our lands." Haniyeh's optimism, however, does not seem to be shared by a growing number of Palestinians, who believe they are now closer than ever to civil war and bankruptcy. Boycotted by the international community, Haniyeh's cabinet is still struggling to raise funds to pay salaries to more than 140,000 PA civil servants. They have not been paid for March and many of them say they can't even afford to travel to work. Hamas has thus far failed to raise enough funds in the Arab and Islamic world. True, its leaders have been promised tens of millions of dollars by Iran, Libya and a few Arab countries, but the money has still not been transferred to Ramallah and the Gaza Strip. A drive by Hamas to collect donations from Arabs and Muslims has also failed because of the failure of Arab banks to cooperate. Even if the promised money does arrive, Hamas officials note, it would hardly cover the amount required to pay March's salaries. In addition to the financial crisis, the Hamas cabinet is also facing a political and diplomatic boycott by most of the world. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, who has just wrapped up a tour of a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya, is about to return home with a suitcase full of promises and little cash. The challenges facing the cabinet from home appear to be worse. Some cabinet ministers living in the West Bank are forced to use public transportation to get to work in Ramallah. Unlike their Fatah predecessors, the Hamas ministers are not equipped with Israeli-issued VIP passes enabling them to drive through IDF checkpoints without delay. One minister was forced last week to walk through wadis and hills to avoid IDF checkpoints. His journey from Nablus to Ramallah lasted more than seven hours. In the month that it has been in power, the cabinet has not been able to meet in its entirety around one table. More than half of the ministers live in the West Bank, while the rest, including Haniyeh, live in the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians are jokingly referring to the Hamas cabinet as the "video-conference government," as that is how it conducts its weekly meetings. Hamas officials are openly accusing PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his senior aides of conspiring with the US and Israel to bring down the Hamas cabinet. The allegations have resulted in increased tensions between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah, with both sides spreading rumors about the other. While Fatah leaders have accused Hamas of hypocrisy and incompetence, Hamas spokesmen say they are the victims of a US-led conspiracy to oust their democratically elected government. Leaflets distributed by Hamas-affiliated groups in the Gaza Strip have specifically implicated Fatah operatives Muhammad Dahlan, and Samir Mashharawi. The crisis has been aggravated by Abbas's decision to cut the powers of the Hamas cabinet, making it almost impossible for each minister to hire a private secretary or deputy. Some of the Hamas ministers have also complained that their predecessors literally stole everything from the ministries, including teaspoons, fax machines and couches. Hamas's decision, on the other hand, to establish its own security force in the Gaza Strip has worried Abbas and his aides. Although Abbas has vetoed the decision by Interior Minister Said Siam, the force, which consists mostly of Hamas militiamen, has already began operating as another police force. Members of the new force are believed to have shot and seriously wounded a PA policeman who dared to block Haniyeh's motorcade in Gaza City earlier this month. Some Arab and Muslim countries, which have been acting as mediators between Hamas and Fatah, are exerting heavy pressure on both sides to establish a national unity cabinet. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar are said to have persuaded the two sides to seriously consider this possibility. Fatah and Hamas leaders are scheduled to meet in the Gaza Strip in mid-May for crisis talks aimed at forming a joint government. Until then, the two parties are likely to continue hanging their dirty laundry in public through street leaflets and Web sites. In response to claims that thieves had stolen a suitcase with $450,000 in cash from Zahar's hotel room in Kuwait, Hamas officials said on Sunday that they had discovered that all the workers in Abbas's office had received their salaries for March, while the rest of the civil servants were being forced to take loans from banks and friends. The Arab League sent an emergency aid payment of $150,000 to the Hamas-led government Sunday, saying the money was desperately needed for medical care. League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the funds were dispatched after the Arab bloc was repeatedly approached by the PA health minister, who said medical care had seriously deteriorated. AP contributed to this report.