Abbas government promises to pay full salaries to civil servants

116.jpgThe government of moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad promised Monday to pay full salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants for at least six months, but also warned that employees cooperating with the Islamist Hamas will be cut from the payroll.In Hamas-ruled Gaza, mosque preachers struck back with a religious decree that government workers who accept Fayyad’s money under such conditions violate the rules of Islam.

The first full wage payments to public sector employees in more than a year — made possible by a renewal of Western aid and Israeli tax transfers — have become the latest test case in the bitter wrangling over who is the legitimate ruler of the Palestinians.

The incoming funds give Fayyad’s government considerable leverage over Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force last month but has not said how it will provide for the coastal strip’s 1.4 million residents.

During 13 months of Hamas rule, the 165,000 government employees, half of them members of the security forces, only received sporadic, partial payments because of an international aid boycott imposed on the Islamists.

Many public sector workers, whose salaries feed one-fourth of the Palestinians, were driven into debt or forced to take on second jobs to survive.

Resumption of payments was seen likely to boost Abbas’ battered popularity and reinforce his message that moderation pays.

Wael Afaneh, 36, an education ministry employee who sold vegetables in an outdoor market in the West Bank city of Ramallah for most of the past year to feed his six children, said he plans to return to his white-collar job.

He said he’s optimistic about the future and backs the Fayyad government. “Hopefully, they will improve the economic situation,” he said.

Fayyad’s information minister, Riyad Malki, on Monday promised full salaries for at least six months, but also warned that those cooperating with Hamas in Gaza will not be paid. Government officials estimated that 19,000 employees would not receive money, including about 12,000 hired by Hamas in the past year.

Fayyad’s government has told all members of the security forces in Gaza to stay home and refuse to take orders from Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister fired by Abbas last month, after the Gaza takeover.

Among the civilians working for the government, only those taking direction from Ramallah will be paid, said Ashraf Ajrami, who is minister of youth and prisoner affairs in the Fayyad government. “It is a battle, and we will isolate them [Hamas],” he said.

Ajrami said he urged several members of his Gaza staff to stay home after they were harassed by Hamas supporters in the ministry. Ajrami said the treasury in Ramallah has lists of names in each ministry of who is loyal and who is not.

Hamas has launched a counterattack.

Mosque preachers in Gaza issued a religious edict that all those who walked off the job must not accept salaries.

Anyone not reporting to work “is an accomplice to a crime and is harming the nation”, said the ruling, posted on the web and in mosques.

In Jerusalem, the Abbas-installed mufti, or top Muslim cleric, issued a counter-decree, approving accepting the salaries.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Abbas is discriminating against employees based on their political beliefs. “Hamas will find alternative sources [of income] for its people,” he said.

Barhoum did not elaborate. However, Hamas has said it has received tens of millions of dollars from Iran in the past year, and money and weapons continue to flow into Gaza through smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

Hamas’ rival, Abbas’ Fateh movement, alleges that the 6,000 members of Hamas’ force, the Executive Force, were always paid well, even at times when the public coffers were empty.

The salaries are to be transferred to the employees’ bank accounts by Wednesday. Malki said he held Hamas in Gaza responsible for safeguarding the banks — though there were no signs of a threatened attack.

The payments were made possible after Israel resumed the transfer of tax funds it had frozen when Hamas came to power in March 2006. On Sunday, Israel handed over  $119 million, out of about $600 million it holds.

Former Palestinian planning minister, Ghassan Khatib,  said the salaries are a boost to Abbas, but Israel undermines him with continued army raids in the West Bank. “The ability to pay salaries is a plus, but only to a certain extent,” he said.

Early Monday, troops killed a member of Fateh’s violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin. The army said the man, carrying an assault rifle with a telescopic sight, was killed in a shootout.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert showered Abbas with praise, calling him a “Palestinian patriot”. “We have cooperated with him (Abbas) in the past, and he is a man of his word,” Olmert told the Israeli parliament, referring to Abbas’ crackdown on Hamas and illegal weapons in the West Bank.

Hamas is far weaker in the West Bank than in Gaza and has been on the defensive since the fall of Gaza. Dozens of Hamas activists have been arrested by Palestinian police in recent weeks, and Abbas said he would dry up funding for Hamas-allied groups. On Monday, four Hamas leaders, including a lawmaker, were arrested by Palestinian security in the West Bank city of Nablus.

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