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Hamas-Fatah Tensions Escalate After Money Smuggling Incident

  • Robert Berger

Tensions are rising between rival Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, after an official of the Hamas-led government was caught smuggling money across the border. The Islamic militants of Hamas, who took control of the Palestinian Authority seven weeks ago, are facing a growing challenge from their defeated rivals in the Fatah party.

Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas confiscated $817,000 from a Hamas official at the border crossing from Egypt into Gaza. All sums over $2,000 must be declared, but customs officials say Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri tried to smuggle the money in.

Around 100 Hamas gunmen rushed to the Rafah border crossing to demand the release of the money, but later withdrew. The incident further raised tensions between Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, and the more moderate Fatah party led by Mr. Abbas.

There has been a wave of clashes between Hamas and Fatah gunmen over the past two weeks, as the sides vie for control of the security forces, raising fears of civil war.

On Thursday, Hamas deployed a unit of 3,000 armed militants to restore law and order, ignoring a veto by Mr. Abbas. He responded by sending police from Fatah onto the streets in a show of force. There was a tense standoff, but both sides held their fire.

But the question is for how long. Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat of Fatah appealed for calm.

"Well, what's going on is a very alarming situation," he said. "Let me tell you that we're exerting maximum effort, in order to have the situation, you know, balance."

But Erekat told Israel Radio he is not sure that civil war can be avoided.

"I really cannot tell you, I really cannot tell you," he said.

The smuggling incident shows how strapped Hamas is for cash. The new government is broke in the wake of international sanctions, imposed after Hamas rejected demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas cannot pay the overdue salaries of 165,000 government employees.

Among the people who have not been paid for two months are the Fatah policeman loyal to Mr. Abbas. So the financial crunch is fueling instability.

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