Armed gangs, including Hamas-backed groups, have plundered at least $120 million from banks in northern Gaza in just the past two months, according to UN estimates, as the war-ravaged strip suffers from a severe cash crunch, Report informs referring to the Financial Times.

The thefts amounted to at least a third of the cash stored in stranded vaults, according to mid-May estimates seen by the Financial Times. About $240 million more is sealed in bank vaults in northern Gaza, some entombed in concrete to try to prevent looting following the collapse of civil order in the besieged enclave.

The robberies have fuelled concerns among Israeli officials that some of the funds could further fuel Hamas’s insurgency as the militant group gains control of scarce banknotes in the besieged enclave’s closed wartime economy.

The conflict and Israeli restrictions on the movement of cash and armored cars have limited the availability of physical money. Residents must pay a fee a week in advance to even join the queue for a cash machine in central Gaza, one of a tiny handful of functioning machines left for the strip’s more than 2 million people.

The most dramatic bank robberies took place on April 17 and 18, shortly after the Bank of Palestine — the biggest financial institution in the occupied Palestinian territories — opted to pour concrete around the vault of its branch in the once-upmarket district of Rimal. The emergency measure made no difference. An explosion rang out at the branch on April 17; one witness told the FT of banknotes fluttering through the air. Thieves absconded with an estimated $31 million in various currencies, according to an internal document sent to the bank’s shareholders and seen by the FT.

The next day, the bank told customers and merchants to come to the remaining branch so they could withdraw their deposits before more cash was stolen. Instead, when they opened the doors, they found “armed groups already inside the branch”, according to the document. Shots were fired and an employee was taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack before others were forced to open the vaults at gunpoint. The bank estimated that $36 million was taken in this second heist, “confiscated on orders . . . from the highest authority in Gaza”, a veiled reference to Hamas, which ruled the territory before the war. The Rimal bank robberies were first reported by Le Monde. While the robberies threatened the Bank of Palestine’s employees, the more than $70 million stolen does not threaten its stability given its overall $5.41 billion in customer deposits, most of which — along with the lion’s share of its business — is in the West Bank.

At the start of the war its liquidity coverage ratio, a common metric for short-term financial health, was more than 740 percent, compared with less than 200 percent for US and UK banks. “From the start of the war, [the bank] has taken all necessary precautions and provisions to ensure that its soundness and stability as an institution, and with respect to its deposits and portfolio, will remain intact even under the worst-case scenario and in the face of the most challenging developments in Gaza,” the Bank of Palestine said in a statement, adding that the estimates of the amounts stolen “cannot be confirmed due to the difficulty of assessing the damages on the ground”.