Haniyeh says some public salaries to be paid

GAZA CITY (AP) — The Hamas-led government said Tuesday it will pay partial salaries to its 165,000 employees, the first payday for increasingly desperate Palestinian workers in three months.

The surprise announcement came after thousands of angry workers staged an anti-government protest. Salaries have not been paid since a cutoff of Western aid and Israeli tax transfers after the Islamic movement took over the Palestinian government.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said he hoped the workers would get cheques “in the next few days” for 1,500 shekels ($333), equal to a full month’s salary for about a quarter of the workers and an advance for the rest.

Reflecting the desperate situation, a senior Hamas official tried to smuggle a large amount of cash into Gaza earlier this month, but the money was confiscated.

Ahmed Youssef, a Haniyeh aide, said that money ended up in the coffers of the finance ministry. Together with local donations and tax collections, he said, there was enough money to pay some salaries.

The Palestinian government is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza. The lack of foreign aid has also led to severe shortages of medicines in Palestinian hospitals and other hardships.

Haniyeh called on Israel and Europe to release funding.

Israel, the US and European Union consider Hamas a “terror group” and refuse to give it money. Haniyeh called that an “unjust siege” on his people.

Israel, the US and Europe demand that Hamas recognise Israel, accept previous peace accords and renounce violence. Hamas has refused. Its ideology does not have a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East, and over the past decade it has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Tuesday that he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas soon, according to participants, but did not want to raise expectations because “after such meetings, the Palestinians always fail to meet their obligations.” Abbas, a moderate, has been trying to force Hamas into a more centrist position, setting a 10-day limit on a dialogue before calling a referendum on a document that implicitly recognises Israel.

The first two days of the dialogue have produced no agreement. On Tuesday, the parties decided to move the talks to Gaza when Abbas returns from a trip on Friday.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Abbas, said administrative and legal arrangements are being made to hold the referendum if the talks fail.

Hamas dismissed Abbas’ ultimatum.

“Time should not be a sword directed at the participants,” Haniyeh said Tuesday. “Enough time should be given to reach the expected results from this dialogue.” In Ramallah, thousands of angry workers demonstrated against the government on Tuesday, demanding payment of their back wages.

The protest, which took place just before Haniyeh announced the partial payments, was organised by the Palestinian Authority Employees Union, sympathetic to Fateh.

Palestinians have been dipping deep into their savings and doing without nonessential items.

One of the protesters, Mohammad Taleb, said he can no longer provide for his 11 children and is living from handouts. “They forgot us. They are busy with politics,” said Taleb, an employee in the transportation ministry.

In violence early Tuesday, Israel sent soldiers deep into Gaza for the first time since its pullout last summer, ambushing an Islamic Jihad rocket squad and killing three fighters in a battle that included missiles fire from an Israeli helicopter.

An officer from the Force 17 security branch was also killed. Hamas said he was a member of its military wing who was part of a force that came to defend the rocket squad.

Islamic Jihad said its cell was about to fire rockets at the Israeli city of Asqalan from northern Gaza when it was surrounded.

Israel has been hesitant to reenter Gaza, but other measures aimed at stopping the daily rocket barrages have failed. The military acknowledged its new tactic in a statement noting that a force “operating in Gaza” engaged the fighters.

Also Tuesday, masked Palestinian men killed a man they suspected of spying for Israel. Jafal Abu Tzrur, 24, was shot dead on a main street by members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, who suspected he informed on three of fighters killed during an Israeli raid on the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus.

The group also denounced Abu Tzrur’s girlfriend, a mother of four who was married to one of the Al Aqsa men slain by Israel, and she was killed by male relatives on grounds that she shamed her clan.

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