Gazans wonder about sources of aid

Local resident says that if Hamas couldn't provide for Palestinians, it must go.

gaza food 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
gaza food 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Palestinian policeman Ibrahim Abu Hattab, a father of four, already owes half his next salary to the local grocery for food, diapers and cigarettes, but he doesn't know whether he'll ever get a paycheck again. Abu Hattab and the rest of the approximately 140,000 Palestinian Authority employees were dealt a blow Friday when the European Union announced it was cutting off aid to the new Hamas regime and the United States said it would cancel or suspend more than $411 million in projects aimed at assisting Palestinians. Hamas has said the PA was broke and would have trouble paying the employees without massive foreign aid. Government salaries sustain about one-third of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. About 43 percent of the Palestinians already live in poverty. Hamas said Friday that the aid cutoff amounted to collective punishment. However, the terrorist organization has refused to meet the international community's conditions for restoring aid - recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of existing peace agreements. In Gaza City, Abu Hattab, a military policeman, said he made about $360 a month, with a family of six to support. The March paychecks were already a week overdue and the Palestinian finance minister, Omar Abdel Razek, said he was $85m short of covering the March payroll, or more than half the required total. Abu Hattab, 27, said that if even he was eventually paid for March, he'd have to give nearly half his paycheck to the neighborhood grocery for last month's expenses and might not have enough left for rent. If Hamas couldn't provide for the Palestinians, it had no business remaining in power, he said. "It's not simple for Hamas but we want to live, with or without Hamas," Abu Hattab said. "If it gets worse, then we can just say farewell [to Hamas]." With the Palestinian Authority strapped for cash, government paychecks have repeatedly been late during the past five years of violence. An economic downturn has spurred domestic unrest, including members of the security forces seizing PA offices to press demands for jobs or higher wages. However, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and members of his Fatah movement made the payroll each month, often by borrowing from banks or appealing to foreign donors for more cash. Hamas does not have those options. In Ramallah, the Bakir family was especially worried because both parents worked for the government. Ayshe Bakir, 45, a manager in the Education Ministry, said she and her husband had high monthly expenses, including supporting a son who studied medicine in Cairo and private school fees for two younger daughters. "We have saved a little money that would support us for a few months, but we cannot stay in this situation for a long time," Bakir said. "Once Palestinian Authority employees stop getting salaries, the whole economy would collapse... We think there is no exit." Amin Makhboul, a clerk with the Interior Ministry in Nablus, said he believed the Palestinian people would throw Hamas out of power if the situation deteriorated further. The ministry didn't even have office paper due to the lack of funds, Makhboul said. "We will have a great mess without salaries," Makhboul said. "Hamas won't be able to stay in power more than three or four months like this." Other Palestinians blamed the West for the increasingly dire situation. Even if they didn't vote for Hamas, many said they backed the government in the face of international pressure. Alam Tamal, 40, a doctor who worked for the Health Ministry in Nablus, said he would work for free if necessary, in a show of solidarity. "It's not easy but we have to deal with this," Tamal said. "Since there is a God in the heavens, no one will die of hunger." Until Hamas won parliament elections in January, the Palestinians received nearly $1 billion in foreign aid annually. EU aid totaled more than $600m per year; the bloc was the Palestinians' largest donor. The funds frozen Friday amounted to half of that annual figure, with the rest coming under the bilateral agreements to be scrutinized at Monday's EU meeting. Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian planning minister, said the aid cutoff would bring economic collapse and political upheaval, even if some money continued to flow to non-governmental groups and projects. "This will make the poor poorer and further deteriorate the economic situation," said Khatib. "This will play into the hands of the current government because the public will have sympathy with it... This decision will backfire if it aims at weakening the government," he said.