Even the weekend in dispute by Palestinian groups at war

THE start of the weekend is cause for celebration all over the world, but for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip even taking time off has become a battleground in the bitter struggle between the Hamas and Fatah factions.

As if life was not already difficult enough for the 1.4 million people living in the impoverished and war-torn Gaza Strip, they have now been presented with an almost impossible dilemma. They can either take off the Hamas weekend of Thursday and Friday - and risk not being paid by Fatah - or face the wrath of the all-powerful Hamas gunmen by observing the Fatah weekend on Friday and Saturday.

While Hamas controls the streets of Gaza, it is the Fatah-aligned rival government in the West Bank that pays their salaries.

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The dispute, which is due to continue today, turned violent on Thursday when ministry of finance staff arrived at work in keeping with the directive from the government in Ramallah.

They found the doors chained shut and guarded by troops from Hamas' Executive Force who threatened to arrest the employees if they did not leave.

According to workers, the Hamas militiamen fired in the air and when the employees still refused to leave, shot into the ground near one of them.

A spokesman for the Executive Force conceded later that shots were fired, but he stressed that there were no orders to open fire, only to bar the workers from the offices.

An employee who identified himself only as Imad said: "We told them that the government in Ramallah announced new weekend days, but they said the people in Ramallah are not the government."

He said workers would not go to work on Saturday despite Hamas' insistence, saying that refusal to heed the Hamas working week was "the beginning of the battle against the coup government in Gaza".

The dispute is a direct result of the Palestinian Authority's fracturing last month along factional and geographical lines with president Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, dismissing Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya and appointing an emergency government in Ramallah following the Islamic movement's armed takeover of Fatah security installations in Gaza.

Each government claims the other is illegitimate.

On Wednesday, Hamas was put on the defensive as the Ramallah government succeeded in making the first full salary payment in a year and a half to 140,000 Palestinian Authority employees after Israel released millions of pounds in frozen tax revenues to the moderate Ramallah government.

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The Fatah-aligned government decided not to pay some 25,000 workers who it said were taking instructions from the Hamas government.

Hamas hit back with a statement saying Allah would provide for the Hamas-aligned civil servants. "Be aware that daily bread is in the hands of God and that God-given release from suffering is near. Be forbearing," it said. It added in a reference to the Ramallah government: "This matter is one of rebellion against God. The punishment of those using daily sustenance to war against our nation will be to perish from our midst."

The Ramallah government is making clear its view that staff should be staying at home. "I am the legitimate minister and I am calling on the workers not to work on Saturday," Ramallah-based health minister Fathi Abu Mughli said.

A two-day weekend is something relatively new in Gaza. Traditionally, Friday, the Muslim holy day, was the only day off.

After the Palestinian Authority split into two governments, Fatah quickly decided to make the weekend Friday and Saturday.

Gaza-based analyst Talal Awkal said: "Friday is a holiday in Palestine, Saturday is a holiday in Israel and Sunday is a holiday in Europe. So having Thursday off also meant that the banks were shut for four days."

He also sees anti-Israeli sentiment in Hamas' definition of the weekend. "They are saying that Saturday is a holiday for Jews and that 'we don't want the holiday for the Muslims to be the same as the one for Jews,'" he said.