- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Hours after angry civil servants stormed parliament, the Palestinian foreign minister returned yesterday from a trip to Muslim nations carrying luggage stuffed with $20 million in cash for his money-starved government.

The piles of bills were a sign of Hamas’ desperation in the face of a Western boycott. The Islamic group, which runs the Palestinian government and whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, has refused to heed calls by Western donor nations to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.

With hardships growing daily for Palestinians, dozens of the civil servants burst into the parliament building in the West Bank to demand their overdue salaries. They threw water bottles, tissue boxes and other small items at Hamas lawmakers and forced the parliament speaker to flee.

The second attack on the parliament this week, along with the fatal shooting of a Hamas gunman in the Gaza Strip, cast doubt on renewed efforts by leaders of the rival Fatah and Hamas parties to halt infighting.

Tensions have been high since Hamas defeated Fatah in legislative elections in January. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader who was elected last year, has been in a power struggle with the Islamic group. Twenty-two persons have been killed in factional fighting in recent weeks.

Mr. Abbas, a moderate, has been pressuring Hamas to accept a proposal that implicitly recognizes Israel. He has endorsed the plan as a way to restart peace talks and lift crippling international sanctions that have rendered the government unable to pay salaries that sustain one-third of the Palestinian population.

But instead of supporting Mr. Abbas’ proposal, Hamas has turned to the Muslim world for help.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas member, returned to Gaza after visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, China, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. Palestinian security officials said Mr. Zahar was carrying $20 million, which was turned over to the Palestinian treasury. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

A security official at the crossing said Mr. Zahar had six pieces of luggage.

The border is staffed by members of Mr. Abbas’ presidential guard, who are observed by European monitors. The monitors stand alongside the border guards and look at video and X-ray equipment, reporting any suspected violations to Palestinian or Israeli authorities.

Last month, a Hamas official was caught smuggling $800,000 into Gaza. The money was seized but later transferred to the government.

Because Mr. Zahar is a government official, he had no restrictions on bringing in the cash, the security officials said.

Hamas says it has raised more than $60 million from Muslim and Arab countries, but U.S. pressure on international banks has prevented them from transferring the money into the Palestinian territories.

The Islamic group’s financial woes have caused widespread pain.

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