Palestinians relieved as salaries get paid [pg.2]

Palestinian Authority employees braved the cold to wait in long lines at ATM machines on Thursday to withdraw salaries that had been delayed several days from their cash-strapped employer following Hamas's victory in the polls. Despite a severe budget crisis, officials said the vast majority of Palestinian employees had been paid their overdue January salary. Yet many employees remained concerned that there would be continued problems with payment. "After two months, I don't know what is going to face us, to challenge us," said Jamal Rabaya, who works as a political researcher with the Palestinian Preventive Security. "If they don't pay the salaries, you will see social catastrophes." Officials said Thursday that all but 3,000 of the PA's 137,000 employees had been paid. The PA has borrowed payroll money from banks to make up for the shortfall, said Deputy Finance Minister Jihad al-Wazir. Wazir said the PA borrowed the money after several Arab countries did not transfer millions of dollars they had promised. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the main cause of the delay was that Israel was several days late in transferring NIS 300 million in taxes, customs and added value that the country collects for the PA each month. The NIS 300m., which was transferred on Tuesday, makes up 60 percent of their salaries, he said. "I hope the Israelis continue to do what they are doing and transfer their funds," Erekat said. "It's not their money. It should be transferred every month as usual." Israel has said it would halt the tax transfers once Hamas forms a government. The United States and Europe have also threatened to cut off aid following the organization's unexpected victory. The loan that the PA received from the Jordanian bank has relieved some of its immediate financial pressure. As a result, the loan has also taken some of the heat off of Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn, who is set to travel to the Persian Gulf over the weekend in an effort to collect funds for the interim PA. Wolfensohn met Thursday in Ramallah with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and is scheduled to meet Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday. Wolfensohn told reporters following his meeting with Abbas that they were "looking to put together a package that will ensure the financial pressure is relieved for the coming period." Wolfensohn is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia pledged some $100 million to the PA in December, but has still not made good on the pledge. In Gaza City, about 25 armed Aksa Martyrs Brigades members who recently joined the security forces broke into the Finance Ministry building to demand their salaries. The armed men left after they received assurances they would be paid within 24 hours like everyone else. Also in Hebron, about a dozen other Aksa Martyrs Brigades members on the government payroll took over the Interior Ministry building demanding their salaries. Meanwhile, Palestinian prosecutors have frozen bank accounts and seized assets of dozens of suspects in a corruption probe of senior PA officials suspected of having stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, according to the Palestinian attorney-general. At least one deputy minister is suspected of misappropriating about NIS 1m., according to The Associated Press. Some employees in Ramallah said the salary delay had caused them to borrow and look for funds elsewhere to make ends meet during the last eight days. The funds are usually available within the first couple of days of the month. Rabaya, who earns NIS 6,000 a month, said he had to borrow about NIS 4,000 from his brother, who had to borrow money from a friend, to pay his daughter's tuition at the Arab American University at Jenin. Rabaya, who said he was going to withdraw his January salary near his hometown on Saturday, wondered how he would get paid in the future in light of some foreign donor countries' stance against funding Hamas unless it recognized Israel. And Hamas, he said, did not seem interested in changing its position. "Hamas, in its propaganda, told people we are gong to defend our land, defend our agenda," said Rabaya from his downtown office. "They won't give up our agenda. This is the problem." Muntaha Hamooda, who works for the Ministry of Political Affairs, was pleased to see that her money had been deposited in the bank on Thursday afternoon. She said she and her husband borrowed NIS 2,000 from friends to make ends meet. "Ten days is a long time to wait," said Hamooda, who has one son. "Life is very expensive." Although Hamooda is employed by Fatah, she said she voted for Hamas, hoping for less corruption and a better life for Palestinians. She previously voted for Fatah, she said, but felt that they didn't represent them. "Now I want to try Hamas," she added. Hakeem Adel Abu Hassereh, an internal auditor at the Internal Audit Directorate at the Ministry of Palestinian Finance, said he felt better now that he had gotten paid Thursday. "I'm married, I have a home, and I have liabilities, bills," said Hassereh, who said his NIS 2,649 monthly salary was not enough to save or start a family. "Today I paid two bills, water and electricity, and I still have bills for the house, because it is rented." The PA has a deficit of $950m. this year, due largely to the intifada and Israeli-imposed barriers between cities, so the government is dependent on outside money from the European Union, America and Arab countries, he said. He said he worried that because Israel controls the ports of entry and banks, it had the authority to halt outside funds in the future. "If Saudi Arabia wants to give us money, [Israel] can stop it" and "we will not get our salary." Saleh Masharqa, who is a journalist for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, said he believed the delay was due to Israel and foreign donors trying to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist in the Middle East and continue negotiations on their terms. Yet no one has addressed our core problems, such as relieving poverty and improving education, he said. "They tell us, 'Do this, do that, stop violence,'" said Masharqa, who was planning to withdraw his salary from the bank on Friday. "They didn't ask about our needs." Herb Keinon contributed to this report.