Israel branded the Palestinian government a “terrorist authority” today and halted the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money to it in reaction to Hamas taking control of the Palestinian parliament.
The sanction, far milder than the package of punishments proposed by Israeli security officials, came as the Palestinian militant group worked to consolidate its power and form a government, nominating one of its more pragmatic leaders, Ismail Haniyeh, to be the new prime minister.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was scheduled to meet with Haniyeh in Gaza tomorrow and formally ask him to assemble a Cabinet, a task Haniyeh would have five weeks to complete. Haniyeh said Hamas would begin talks with possible coalition partners on Monday.
The Islamic group, which calls for the destruction of Israel and has carried out scores of deadly suicide bombings against Israelis, trounced Abbas’ corruption-riddled Fatah Party in January 25 elections, winning 74 of 132 parliament seats.
Israel and Western countries demanded the group renounce violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist, but Hamas resisted pressure to moderate. The group took control of the Palestinian legislature when the new parliament was sworn yesterday.
“The PA is – in practice – becoming a terrorist authority,” acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet at the beginning of its meeting today. “Israel will not hold contacts with a government in which Hamas takes part.”
The Cabinet decided to stop the transfer of the roughly $55m (€46m) a month it collects in taxes and tariffs on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The order did not specify when the payments would stop, but government spokesman Asaf Shariv said the next payment, scheduled for early March, “won’t take place.”
The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority relies on that money to help pay the salaries of roughly 140,000 government employees. Should the government, the Palestinians’ largest employer, be forced to lay off tens of thousands of workers, it would lead to increased chaos and poverty in Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
However, the Cabinet held back from adopting far harsher proposals made by Israeli security officials, including a recommendation to seal off the Gaza Strip from Israel, barring thousands of Palestinian labourers from entering Israel and eliminating all trade with the impoverished area.
Israel’s acting foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said the government did not want to worsen the daily lives of Palestinians, a move she said would cause an international backlash against Israel.
But she warned that: “Israel will take a number of additional politically significant steps regarding the Palestinian Authority." She did not elaborate.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel TV the government could freeze work on the construction of a seaport and airport in Gaza.
The Cabinet also decided to ask the international community to stop giving money to the Palestinians, though it said humanitarian aid should continue. Hamas is listed as a terror organisation by the US and the European Union, and many Western countries have threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the Palestinian Authority if the group does not moderate.
Hamas condemned the Cabinet decision and said it was political posturing ahead of Israel’s own election on March 28. Haniyeh said he was hopeful his future government would be able to find new sources of funding.
“We are optimistic that Arab and Muslim countries will always be here to support the Palestinian people and the cause, as well as many countries in the international community,” he told the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera.
The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said that Arab governments were considering providing the money to make up for the frozen transfers from Israel. Arab governments have not been among the top donors to the Palestinian Authority in the past, and some have failed to give pledged funds.
Also today, military officials said an Israeli aircraft attacked two Palestinians laying a bomb in the Gaza Strip, near the border fence with Israel. Two militants from the small Popular Resistance Committees were killed, Palestinians security officials said.
Later, Israeli troops killed two Palestinians during a military operation in the Balata refugee camp in the northern West Bank. Palestinian witnesses said the 17-year-old youths were shot after throwing rocks at soldiers. The army said they were planting a roadside bomb.
Witnesses said the army entered Balata, a militant stronghold, in search of fugitives.