GAZA (Reuters) -Dozens of masked Palestinian security men stormed a government building in the Gaza Strip on Saturday demanding the Hamas-led administration, already under international financial pressure, pay overdue salaries.
“Salaries, or go home,” the protesters chanted in the central town of Khan Younis, directing their message at Hamas in the biggest such demonstration since the Islamic militant group assumed power last month following its January election victory.
The security men, some of them firing in the air, burst into a government building in the town, briefly occupying offices and forcing workers to leave. They also blocked a main road leading south to Rafah, on the border with Egypt.
Salaries for the 140,000 employees on the Palestinian Authority’s payroll are two weeks overdue.
The United States and the European Union have cut aid to the Hamas-led government because it has not met their demands to renounce violence, recognize Israel and agree to abide by interim peace deals.
The U.S. Treasury Department has also barred Americans, U.S. companies and the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign firms from pursuing most business dealings with the Palestinian Authority.
“The economy is paralyzed. We can’t buy groceries because no one will give us credit. Taxi drivers, won’t give us a ride, because we don’t have money,” said Abu Mohammed, a leader of the protesters, most of them from the rival Fatah movement.
“We warn this is only a first step,” he said.
Palestinian Finance Minister Omar Abdel-Razek of Hamas said on al-Jazeera satellite television that he was “appalled and astonished” by the Khan Younis protest.
“Everyone knows (the cash crunch) is the result of the oppressive isolation that is forced on the Palestinian people and the government. They all know that the account is empty … and we don’t have enough to pay salaries,” he said.
Hamas says it inherited a Palestinian Authority with empty coffers and more than $1.3 billion in government debts. The movement won election on a platform of cleaning up government corruption and pursuing armed struggle against Israel.
Accusing the United States of waging “economic war” against the Palestinian government, Abdel-Razek said Hamas would not be forced into political concessions and he voiced the hope that Arab governments would send financial aid soon.
Hamas, dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000 but has largely abided by a ceasefire reached a year ago.
On Friday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said financial pressure from an “unholy alliance” led by the United States would not bring down the new Hamas government.
Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters poured onto Gaza’s streets after Friday prayers to attend Hamas-sponsored rallies protesting aid cuts by the United States and the EU.
Asserting that Palestinians were prepared to make sacrifices to keep Hamas in power, Haniyeh said: “We will eat cooking oil and olives.”