Palestinian ministers cut short Gaza visit over dispute with Hamas

Palestinian cabinet ministers cut short a visit to Gaza over disputes between Fatah and Hamas

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Palestinian cabinet ministers from the occupied West Bank cut short a visit to Gaza on Monday over disputes between the Western-backed Fatah movement and Islamist group Hamas which dominates the territory, officials said.

The truncated visit reflected tensions threatening a year-old "unity" government, harming internationally-backed
efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip after a war with Israel and complicating Palestinian statehood ambitions.

Palestinians in Gaza had hoped Fatah, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas could resolve a crisis over salaries owed to about 40,000 public servants hired by Hamas in the past eight years it has dominated the Gaza Strip.

Resolving the issue is crucial to Western hopes of Abbas's government taking control of Gaza crossings and facilitating an effort to rebuild tens of thousands of buildings destroyed during the five-week July-August war.

An official close to the 11-member West Bank delegation accused Hamas-controlled security officers of barring ministers from heading from a Gaza beach-front hotel to their offices during what was to have been a week-long stay, which was cut to 24 hours.

"Hamas has thwarted the visit, they didn't allow ministers to implement the plan they came for and help alleviate problems in Gaza," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ali Abu Dyak, secretary-general of the Palestinian government, charged in a statement published by the official
WAFA news agency that Hamas had obstructed their work. "Hamas does not respect the law," Dyak alleged.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the allegations and countered that the West Bank ministers had sought to meet with senior employees at the hotel instead of going to their offices.

Abu Zuhri also said his group had not been consulted over the make-up of the committee set up to resolve the salaries
issue, which he said was dominated by Fatah.

"We urge the government to continue to bear its responsibility towards Gaza employees without discrimination," he said.

Talal Okal, a Gaza political analyst, said the sides also differed over a decision by Hamas lawmakers to tax goods imported through Israel. "Only ministers should levy taxes and not Hamas," he said.

Abu Zuhri said the tax was needed to make up for a revenue shortfall and "prevent a total collapse of services" in Gaza.

In a related development, Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bshara said revenue that Israel was expected to transfer later this week would enable Palestinians to complete disbursement of salaries for the past four months to civil servants.

Israel had withheld tax revenue to the Palestinians after Abbas signed up to the International Criminal Court, then
renewed the payments earlier this month after international pressure.