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Palestinian Minister Takes $20M in Cash to Gaza

Hours after cash-starved civil servants stormed parliament, the Palestinian foreign minister returned Wednesday from a trip to Muslim nations with $20 million in his luggage, a sign of Hamas' desperation for money in the face of a Western boycott.

Dozens of the civil servants had burst into the parliament building in the West Bank to demand their long-overdue salaries, throwing water bottles at Hamas lawmakers and forcing the parliament speaker to flee.

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

CountryWatch: Israel

Tensions have been high since Hamas defeated Fatah in legislative elections in January. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who was elected separately last year, has been in a power struggle with the Islamic group, and 22 people have been killed in factional fighting in recent weeks.

Abbas has been pressuring Hamas to accept a proposal that implicitly recognizes Israel. Abbas, a moderate, 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.

Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, has refused to cave in to calls by Western donor nations to renounce violence and recognize Israel, despite the growing hardship. Instead, it has turned to the Muslim world for help.

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

The border is staffed by members of Abbas' presidential guard, who are observed by European monitors. The monitors stand beside 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.

But since Zahar is a VIP, there were no restrictions on him bringing in the cash, the officials said. Zahar returned home and did not speak to reporters.

Hamas claims 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.

Hamas' financial woes have caused widespread pain.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, dozens of government workers burst into the parliament building and pelted Hamas lawmakers with water bottles, tissue boxes and other small items.

"We are hungry. We are hungry," the protesters screamed.

During the melee, some demonstrators climbed onto lawmakers' desks. At one point, security guards broke up a scuffle between two female lawmakers. No injuries were reported.

Parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik, a top Hamas official, fled the hall under heavy guard shortly before the crowd burst in. "I'm not coming back until they leave," Duaik said as he rushed out.

Order was restored after about 45 minutes, and the parliamentary session resumed.

Most of the demonstrators were thought to be Fatah activists. Later Wednesday, several hundred Hamas supporters marched peacefully in Ramallah to condemn attacks on government buildings.

"We ask, whose interests are you serving through these actions, burning down our institutions?" Hamas leader Farhat Assad asked in a speech. "It is uglier than the practices of the Israeli occupation."

Earlier this week, hundreds of pro-Fatah security personnel went on a rampage in Ramallah, shooting and burning the parliament and Cabinet buildings in a rage against the Hamas-led government.

Abbas' power struggle with Hamas, which has spilled over into factional fighting, has centered around control of the powerful, Fatah-dominated security forces.

In the latest fighting, a Hamas gunman was killed in the southern Gaza Strip shortly after Hamas militants attacked the local commander of a Palestinian police force. The commander was shot in the legs seven times and moderately wounded.

After the Hamas militant was killed, the group attacked the commander's home and set it on fire. Hamas activists pulled the commander's family out of the building before it was torched.

Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed late Tuesday to start a weeklong series of meetings aimed at ending the violence. The two men, joined by senior security commanders, continued their talks Wednesday in Gaza City.

"We deplore and regret these incidents," Haniyeh said. "We all are concerned and interested in stopping this deterioration. The government is going to carry out its responsibilities along with the security branches in order to maintain law and order."

Participants said Wednesday's talks focused on Hamas' controversial private militia. Hamas deployed the 3,000-member force last month, setting off weeks of bloodshed. Abbas has demanded the force be disbanded.

Haniyeh said Abbas had agreed to incorporate the militia into the regular police force in Gaza. But he declined to say when this might take place. Hamas has twice pledged to remove the militia from public places, but it remains in position.

The wider dialogue between Fatah and Hamas has concentrated on a plan that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in effect recognizing the Jewish state.

Abbas believes the plan gives the Palestinians a way to form a united political front. But if the talks fail, he has scheduled a July 26 referendum on the plan, over Hamas' objections.

The talks have coincided with a spike in fighting with Israel. On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike killed eight civilians and two militants in Gaza. Two children were among the dead. Israel said the strike was aimed to stop militants about to carry out a rocket attack against Israel.

The airstrike followed the death of eight civilians in an explosion on a Gaza beach on Friday. Palestinians say the blast was caused by an Israeli artillery round, but on Tuesday, Israel said an internal inquiry concluded it was not to blame.

Fatah and Hamas officials rejected the Israeli findings.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, chief of the army's southern command, said Israel is examining ways to better ensure civilians are not hit in airstrikes.

"We will study how we can reduce such types of incidents in the future," he told Army Radio.