The slaying of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers in the West Bank is straining the Palestinians’ newfound unity, already tested by wrangling over finances.
Even before the bodies were discovered on June 30, senior Hamas officials were publicly questioning their backing of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority because of a dispute over unpaid public-sector salaries in the Gaza Strip. Abbas may be forced to end the month-old partnership if two Hamas militants killed the youths as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says.
“If Hamas is responsible for kidnapping the three Israelis, the situation will be very difficult,” said Walid al-Mudallal, a political science professor at the Islamic University in Gaza City. “Abbas may announce that he is pulling out of the reconciliation agreement.”
After peace talks with Israel broke down in April, Abbas ended his rift with Hamas over its 2007 seizure of Gaza, which resulted in the formation of rival governments there and in the West Bank. The unity government was sworn in June 2, backed by Hamas without including official members of the group.
Netanyahu has called on Abbas to end his pact with Hamas, saying it encouraged the kidnappings by lifting restrictions on Hamas, which has neither confirmed nor denied involvement. The Palestinian leader, who condemned the abductions, has said the kidnappers will be held accountable. He has also said Israel hasn’t provided evidence that Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, was responsible.
Today, the specter of a revenge killing was raised after police found the body of a Palestinian teenager in a Jerusalem woods. The killing set off clashes between police and Palestinians in Jerusalem.
In his West Bank base, Abbas’s defense of working with Israel to search for the missing youths generated a backlash. Protests broke out in Ramallah and a Palestinian Internet campaign derided him as an Israeli stooge.
One Facebook page showed him with an eye patch, resembling Israel’s legendary defense minister, Moshe Dayan. Another photo-shopped picture had the 79-year-old president dressed as an Israeli combat soldier clutching two blindfolded Palestinians, arms handcuffed behind their backs.
Palestinian police, a symbol of Abbas’s power, became targets, too. Squad car windshields were smashed and rocks were hurled at a police station.
“The unity government can’t survive if Abbas is seen as an Israeli agent,” Akram Atallah, a lecturer at Al Aqsa University in Gaza City, said last week.
Finances are another threat. The Palestinian Authority, which relies on international donations to survive, hasn’t paid salaries to 58,000 employees of the former Hamas government in Gaza since the unity government was formed. Thousands of the group’s fighters were on that payroll. While Qatar agreed to pay salaries for at least three months, neither the Palestinian Authority nor banks in Gaza were willing to receive the money, Mukhemer Abu Sada, a political science professor at al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said by phone.
“Whoever accepts the money will be accused by the international community of basically making payments to a terrorist organization,” Abu Sada said.
He described the Palestinian Authority’s situation as “shaky” because in its first month in power, “nothing has really been done to alleviate the daily conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza. The government might collapse as a result of its inability to deal with Palestinian internal problems,” he said.
Hamas stopped paying full salaries nine months ago after its former patron, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, was toppled. Mursi’s removal last year freed the Egyptian military to destroy smuggling tunnels under the border with Gaza that had supplied the Hamas government with much of its income.
Government workers went on strike on June 26, with union leaders blaming their plight on Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. This week, two prominent Hamas officials openly discussed a possible breakup of the government.
“Ignoring Gaza and considering the Palestinian Authority present only in the West Bank, with Gaza inessential, would oblige Hamas to rule the Gaza Strip again,” former Hamas deputy chief Mousa Abu Marzook wrote on his Facebook page.
Senior Hamas official Yehya Mussa called on the four Gaza-based ministers in the unity government to resign. “Leaders in Ramallah,” he said, aren’t letting Gaza ministers “help their people meet their simple basic needs.”