The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip was to begin paying thousands of civil servants cut from the payroll of its rival Fatah, officials said on Saturday, further entrenching the divisions between the two Palestinian territories.
Hamas' takeover of Gaza, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to dismiss the Hamas government, effectively set up two Palestinian administrations. Abbas has installed a Cabinet headed by US-backed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that has control of the West Bank.
Hamas' payment of the salaries would further cement its rule over impoverished Gaza, where unemployment is about 40 percent and most of the 1.4 million people receive foreign food handouts.
The money will go to thousands of members of Hamas' Executive Force, a Hamas militia that polices Gaza, and those civil servants who refused an order from Fayyad not to cooperate with the Islamic group.
During a year of Hamas rule, following the group's election victory in January last year, civil servants were only paid sporadically because of an international aid boycott, prompting a further downturn in the battered Palestinian economy.
Hamas has relied largely on aid from sympathetic governments, such as Iran, and on donations sent to its charities in Gaza.
In all, Abbas' Palestinian Authority employs about 165,000 people, half of them members of the Fatah-allied security forces. The salaries of civil servants provide for about one-third of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ala al-Batta, head of a Hamas-run civil servants' union in Gaza, told a local news radio on Saturday that more than 10,000 government workers would receive their salaries from Hamas. The first of the money was to be paid out yesterday.
Hamas officials said they had enough money to pay salaries in the near future. However, it's unclear how long it could keep up payments since it has difficulties bringing money into Gaza.
In other developments, Information Minister Riad Malki announced on Saturday that Fayyad's government had reached an agreement with Israel, bypassing Hamas, that will enable some 6,000 Gazans stranded in Egypt since the beginning of last month to return home gradually.
Their return had been delayed by a dispute over the Rafah terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border, the only passage for Gazans to the world that has been closed since the Fatah-Hamas fighting began in Gaza.
About 100 people headed to the Israeli border yesterday, a Palestinian official said, the first of more than 600 stranded Gazans who were expected to return home yesterday and today.
A Palestinian embassy official, Hani al-Jabour, said that around 627 Palestinians would be allowed to cross into Gaza through Israel under the deal agreed upon on Saturday. He said the Palestinians chosen had been chosen on a first-come-first-served basis and that none were wanted by Israel.
Jabour made no mention of when the remaining thousands would be allowed to cross.