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Israel agrees to transfer millions to Palestinians

Israeli officials agreed Sunday to make an overdue payment of about $45 million owed to the Palestinians, but said future transfers will be halted once Hamas forms the next Palestinian government.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel agreed Sunday to transfer $54 million in desperately needed tax money to the Palestinian Authority, but said it might freeze payments after the Islamic group Hamas forms the next Palestinian government.

Israel’s monthly transfer of the taxes and customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinians is crucial to the functioning of the Palestinian Authority. Halting the payments would deepen the government’s financial crisis and add to the growing international pressure on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel before it takes power.

Also Sunday, the army conducted a wave of airstrikes in Gaza that killed five militants. The army said the strikes were meant to deter rocket fire from Gaza.

“If there is no quiet in Israel, we will respond seven times,” said Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, chief of Israel’s southern command.

Among the dead were Jihad Sawfriri, the leader of the group’s rocket launching team, and Adnan Bustan, who was in charge of producing rockets for the group, according to Khaled Dadouh, Islamic Jihad’s military commander in Gaza, who threatened retaliation.

“There is no border and no limit to our response,” he said.

Also Sunday, a Palestinian assailant killed an Israeli woman and wounded four people in a stabbing rampage on a bus in the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva. Police said the attack was politically motivated.

A Palestinian man also was killed in an explosion near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Hospital officials said it appeared the man had been handling a bomb.

The violence was the worst since the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections that Hamas won in a landslide. After the election, the United States and the European Union threatened to withhold tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid to the Palestinians if the Islamic group does not moderate itself.

Israel also froze the transfer of the tax money last week because of Hamas’ victory, forcing the Palestinian Authority to postpone paying January salaries to its 137,000 workers. Failure to meet the payroll could lead to widespread layoffs and ignite violence in an already volatile area.

Cabinet minister Zeev Boim said the funds would be cut off if Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, does not change its ways.

“If and when Hamas rises to power and supports policies according to its jihad principles of destroying Israel, not another dollar will be transferred,” he told Israel Radio.

So far, Hamas has rejected pressure to moderate and said it would turn to Arab and Muslim countries to make up the difference. Khaled Mashaal, the Syrian-based political head of Hamas, said Sunday he would go to Egypt at the start of a tour of Arab countries seeking support.

Mushir al-Masri, an incoming Hamas lawmaker from Gaza, termed Israel’s payment freeze “theft” and said it should not “blackmail” Hamas.

Mohammed Abu Teir, another incoming Hamas lawmaker, said the group already has lined up $100 million in funding from an Arab country he declined to name.

As the Palestinians scrambled for funds, their attorney general said senior Palestinian Authority officials might have stolen billions of dollars of public funds.

Corruption probe
Attorney General Ahmed Al-Meghani said his office is investigating dozens of corruption cases involving companies tied to the Palestinian Authority.

“I cannot count the numbers because I’m not an accountant. It might be billions of dollars. When I end my investigation, I’m going to outline all the numbers in detail,” he said.

He said 25 suspects were arrested, and international warrants were issued for 10 others. He declined to identify the suspects, but said the probe included the Palestinian oil, tobacco and broadcasting corporations.

Government corruption was a major factor in Hamas’ landslide victory over the long-ruling — and corruption tainted — Fatah party.

Meanwhile, Israel reopened the Karni cargo crossing into Gaza, more than three weeks after closing it because of intelligence that militants were planning an attack there.

Palestinian officials estimated the Gaza economy lost $30 million due to the closure.