Hamas-linked heists leave banknotes fluttering in the air

Palestinians at a cash machine at the Palestine Bank in Gaza City in 2006
Palestinians at a cash machine at the Palestine Bank in Gaza City in 2006 - SAMUEL ARANDA/AFP

Hamas-linked militants have stolen tens of millions of dollars from Gazan banks in heists that Israel fears could prolong the terror group’s attempts to cling to power.

On successive days in April, thieves were able to make away with bank notes worth tens of millions of dollars.

Representatives of the Bank of Palestine claim that the money was confiscated “on orders . . . from the highest authority in Gaza,” an apparent reference to Hamas.

Bank of Palestine, the main lender in the Palestinian Territories, had tried to seal its vaults in concrete, fearing that they would be targeted by thieves in an area that has descended into lawlessness since the beginning of the war.

But militants used explosives to blow a hole through the concrete casing on April 17, leading to bank bills “fluttering through the air,” according to the Financial Times.

Robbers were able to steal an estimated $31 million (£24 million) in various currencies during the heist, according to the newspaper.

Drilling into bank machines

A day later, armed militants forced the bank’s employees to open the vaults at gunpoint and were able to steal a further 36 million dollars.

Several smaller robberies involving militants drilling into bank machines have also been reported in the territory.

The UN estimates that a total of $120 million have been stolen from bank vaults since the beginning of the war, while a further €240 million is still stranded at bank branches.

Jerusalem is reportedly concerned that the robberies will strengthen Hamas’ hand in the war-ravaged enclave, where Israeli-imposed restrictions on the import of cash have made physical money scarce.

Israel has itself confiscated cash valued at 50 million dollars in a move it has said was to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on the money.

Criminal gangs control ATMs

The Bank of Palestine has tried to convince Israel to help it transport money out of its vaults in Gaza earlier on in the war.

Gaza is facing a serious cash crisis. After eight months of heavy aerial bombardment only a few bank machines in the impoverished territory remain operational.

Residents say that criminal gangs have taken control of the ATMs and take bribes to offer people quicker access, as huge queues wait to access the scarce cash.

The Palestinian Monetary Authority recently eased the rules around digital transfers, but these are reliant on electricity and an internet connection, resources that are also in short supply in the besieged territory.