By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Employees who have been on separate payrolls of rival Palestinian governments traded blows at Gaza banks on Thursday when those hired by Hamas did not receive their wages under a new unity administration.
In an attempt to alleviate the crisis, Hamas contacted the Emir of Qatar and announced he had agreed to fund the salaries.
Since Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, the PA has kept paying some 70,000 public employees in the coastal enclave.
The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, which has faced a cash crunch since Egypt closed border smuggling tunnels, has 40,000 civil servants and security personnel on its own books. The public employees were hired by Hamas after the 2007 takeover, and have not been paid in weeks.
The inauguration on Monday of a unity government under a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation pact raised expectations among Hamas-hired servants that they would now receive their wages. Thousands joined their PA-payroll colleagues at Gaza ATMs on Thursday, hoping to withdraw their salaries.
But the Hamas employees came away empty-handed, and a spokesman for the unity government said they still had to be vetted by a committee before they could be added to the new leadership's payroll.
Fist fights between PA and Hamas employees broke out and club-wielding Palestinian riot police pushed them away from the cash machines, which were then closed, along with Gaza bank branches, to prevent more violence, according to an Interior Ministry spokesman.
"You call this a reconciliation? We should all eat or no one does," shouted one employee of the former Hamas-run government.
"Why is it our fault? Go and ask your Hamas leaders who signed the deal - why prevent us from feeding our families?" countered a PA civil servant.
Hamas deputy chief Ismail Haniyeh called the Emir of Qatar who agreed to fund the salaries and help fund the government in the coming period via official channels, a statement from Haniyeh's office said.
"(Haniyeh) ... urged Qatar and Arab brothers to provide aid to the government of national unity in order to enable it to carry out its financial obligations to employees in Gaza and the West Bank and His Highness accepted," the statement read.
Palestinian officials in Gaza did not disclose the amount of aid or the period over which it would be provided.
Hamas is shunned by the West over its refusal to recognise Israel and renounce violence.
Despite Israeli objections, the main donors to the PA, the United States and the European Union, have accepted the unity government, noting that it is comprised of politically unaffiliated technocrats and is committed to the principles of a peaceful solution with Israel.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Ori Lewis and Ralph Boulton)