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20 Jun 2006 00:00
The Palestinian foreign minister returned to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday from a trip abroad with an estimated $20-million packed in 12 separate suitcases, according to officials.
Mahmoud Zahar, a member of Hamas, declared the amount he was carrying to Egyptian officials at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The cash was held by Palestinian border guards who are commanded by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinian government has had great difficulty paying the wages of about 165 000 staff since Hamas took control of it.
Most have received no salary for three months.
The Hamas government has been boycotted by Western governments for its refusal formally to recognise Israel, refute violence and adhere to previous treaties between Israel and the Palestinians. As a consequence many banks have refused to handle money for the Palestinian Authority (PA), fearing international sanctions. Hamas officials have been forced to carry suitcases full of cash into Gaza from Egypt. On Saturday one transported $5 672 050- and earlier in the month another attempted to smuggle $804 000.
The amount the PA has accumulated is still far from the $415-million it owes workers, and it will have diffi-culty distributing the money it has accumulated. Israeli banks have stopped releasing shekels, the currency of the PA, and bank reserves are expected to run out within a month.
Elsewhere in Gaza, Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister, made progress in reducing factional tensions. Rivalry peaked on Saturday, when Abbas called a referendum to force Hamas to recognise Israel and support peace negotiations. But factional fighting was partially defused after Israel launched two attacks that left about 18 civilians dead.—Â
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