President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the Palestinian attorney general to investigate a senior Hamas official who was caught trying to smuggle $817,000 into the Gaza Strip, a senior presidential adviser said Friday.
Sami Abu Zuhri was caught trying to smuggle the money into Gaza from Egypt earlier in the day, a possible sign of how desperate the cash-starved Hamas government is for money. He was stopped at the Palestinian-controlled Gaza-Egypt border.
“President Abbas has sent the money and the file to the attorney general,” said Abbas adviser Saeb Erekat. “It has become a legal case that requires an investigation.”
Earlier Friday, a gun battle erupted for the first time between police loyal to Abbas and a new security force the Hamas government deployed in defiance of Abbas’ ban, edging the rivals closer to a wider spasm of violence.
Abu Zuhri told Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera that the money was donated privately by individuals he met during a tour of Arab nations.
Palestinian officials said he was on his way back from Qatar, whose government pledged $50 million to the Palestinian Authority but hasn’t been able to transfer the cash because of Western economic sanctions on the militantly anti-Israel Hamas government.
Julio De La Guardia, a spokesman for a European Union contingent that monitors the passage, said travelers crossing through Rafah must declare all sums over $2,000.
“He (Abu Zuhri) did not declare that money, he tried to smuggle it,” De La Guardia said.
Hard up for cash
The Hamas government has been broke since the West and Israel dried up hundreds of millions of dollars in aid because of Hamas’ refusal to disarm and recognize Israel.
The cutoffs have rendered Hamas unable to pay two months of back wages to government employees who provide for one-third of people in the already impoverished West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Dozens of Hamas gunmen blocked the crossing after the money was confiscated. Abu Zuhri was escorted out of the terminal by Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas government spokesman, and a political adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
“We are upset to be dealt with this way at a time when the Palestinian people are suffering from siege and starvation,” Abu Zuhri told Al-Jazeera.
Meanwhile, two policemen and a Hamas gunman were wounded in the gunfight near the Palestinian parliament building and the police headquarters, symbols of the power struggle between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party.
Abbas, elected to replace longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in January 2005, has been assuming new powers to try to strengthen his international and domestic standing since Hamas’ surprise election victory over the long-ruling Fatah in January.
But infighting between the two sides has been spreading, raising the specter of an all-out civil war Abbas had hoped to avoid by refusing to disarm Hamas before the elections, despite Israeli and U.S. pressure.
Egyptian diplomats mediate
The gunfight apparently was sparked by unknown gunmen who opened fire from a moving car on the Fatah-dominated police headquarters, said Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry. The police, loyal to Abbas, apparently thought nearby Hamas forces were responsible and fired at them.
A police spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, accused the Hamas-led force of igniting the battle.
The sides worked throughout the night to calm the situation, bringing in Egyptian diplomats to help mediate, Abu Hilal said.
Haniyeh earlier brushed off Abbas’ order to remove the militia from the streets. Abbas quickly backed down, fearing civil war, but his restraint risked making him look weak and unable to keep the militants in check.
Abbas, who is abroad, plans to deal with the new force as a legal matter, and rules out an armed confrontation, aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim said.
As president, Abbas wields significant authority and has been trying to reduce Hamas’ power. Abbas is trying to persuade the world to deal with him directly, and to funnel vitally needed foreign aid through his office.
The sanctions, and Israel’s withholding of some $50 million in monthly tax revenues, have crippled the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, which has been unable to pay salaries to its 165,000 employees during the past two months.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied the sanctions had caused a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, saying the reports were based on Palestinian propaganda. However, he said Israel was prepared to directly send medicines and other supplies to Palestinian hospitals.
“We wouldn’t allow one baby to suffer one night because of a lack of dialysis,” Olmert was quoted as saying in an interview published Friday in The New York Times. “We will pay, if necessary, out of our own pockets.”