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Clampdown in the West Bank
Last week, Netanyahu’s speech in congress dominated the headlines from Israel/Palestine, but increased pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) could be reaching a boiling point. The withholding of Palestinian tax funds by Israel as well as power cuts imposed without warning on vast parts of the West Bank are putting relative stability at risk.
Following the Palestinian decision to join the International Criminal Court in early January the Israeli government had decided to freeze the transfer of tax revenues from imported and exported goods. According to the terms of the Paris protocol, these are collected by Israel and transferred to the PA monthly minus a 3% fee.
Finding itself short of funds, the PA borrowed from local banks and cut the January salaries of its 160000 employees by 40%. The Palestinians have appealed to the Arab league to activate a 100 million dollar per month ‘safety net’ procedure prepared in 2010 for precisely this eventuality, however it is doubtful that this mechanism will function as smoothly as planned.
The economic shock of the past couple of months has brought about mounting desperation and unrest in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has even threatened to end security cooperation with Israel, but he is facing international pressure to refrain from doing so until after the Israeli elections, perhaps because this latest move is seen as a case of election diplomacy, as the Palestinian Minister of Finance Shukri Bishara presumed.
While this is not the first time the PA has been pressured in this way by the Israelis, this round is different. It is hard to imagine that the measures the Israeli government have taken against the Palestinian Authority, and directly against the Palestinian population of the West Bank, have not been a calculated campaign of fomentation. Israeli actions are especially suspect considering the actions of the Israeli Electric Company, which has initiated a set of surprise power cuts to the West Bank.
On February 23rd, Yiftach Ron-Tal, director of the electrical company convened a press conference and declared that since the Palestinian Authority owes the Israeli Electrical Company some 327 Million Pounds, ‘Starting today, we will begin restricting electricity’. Haaretz reported that Palestinians were forewarned of a power restriction, but in effect some 700,000 Palestinians experienced a blackout for 45 minutes.
Two days later, power was cut again without warning for 30 minutes. The Prime Minister’s office denied involvement in the decision and reportedly both the defence minister and the national security opposed the blackouts, but the Palestinian news agency Wafa reported on Thursday that the IEC had informed its Palestinian counterparts of a planned reduction of 50% of the electricity, a move that would cast vast areas of the west bank into darkness.
Eventually, a deal was struck between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Electricity Company, according to which 300 million NIS of the Palestinian tax money would be confiscated to defray the debt. Altogether, not only has the tax freeze not been lifted, but also much of it has been confiscated after a bout of collective punishment has been meted out.
Teasing the Status Quo
As the IDF itself attests, these economic measures increase the chances of violence. The West Bank is under the de facto military rule of the general of the central command and the current commanding officer, Nitzan Alon, argued in the past that “Stability in the region includes the ability of the Palestinian Authority to pay its salaries”. This view is shared by the erstwhile chief of staff Benny Gantz who offered a similar projection in his final briefing in early February, warning of the fragility of the security situation in the West Bank.
The IDF is not alone in thinking that this emerging policy, which the Palestinian finance minister has termed ‘economic siege’, is a bad idea. In what is becoming a refrain of acrimonious prediction from the usual acronyms, the US, the EU the UN and the IMF all warned against such a move. Also the Israeli President, former Likud member Reuven Rivlin heavily criticized the tax freeze as a useless punitive measure, since the crippling of the PA would be as damaging to Israel as it would be for Palestinians.
In this context, a large-scale military drill held in the West Bank – another ‘surprise’ operation – challenges the last vestiges of Palestinian autonomy and exposes a clampdown on the Palestinian Authority.
Life for Palestinians in the West Bank is by no means convenient. 46 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF in 2014 and there has been a 40% rise in settlement construction. Any ‘quiet’ is merely a status quo in the context of a prolonged occupation. However, the recent Israeli clampdown is worrying precisely because it is not dramatic enough to make the headlines.
Despite the dire warnings from international organisations, foreign governments, the Israeli president and the most relevant acting IDF officials, and under the cover of an unfolding diplomatic spectacle in Washington, the measures taken by the Israeli government against the Palestinian Authority in the past few weeks knowingly risked its collapse and a consequent outbreak of violence.
The Palestinian response came last Thursday, when the Central Council of the PLO adopted a ‘we’ll see you in court’ policy, exclaiming that Israel “should shoulder all its responsibilities toward the Palestinian people in the occupied state of Palestine as an occupation authority according to international law.”
The Temporary Freeze
For now, the implementation of the decision has been postponed, and even temporarily reversed. Subsequent arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank both by the IDF and the PA even lead Hamas to accuse the PA of betrayal.
The reason for this collaboration, despite the previous decision, is the fear that a terror attack will strengthen Netanyahu and Israeli hardliners in next week’s elections. It would not be far fetched to assume that the same powerful actors who protested Netanyahu’s tax freeze for fear of escalation pressured Abbas to secure the Israeli elections, after all, the game of election diplomacy has never been more overt. When the Israeli elections are over, the next government will face a full-blown Palestinian crisis. Palestinians will have to contend with the aftermath of their government’s capitulation to the international political and economic interests on which it is dependent; a state of affairs increasingly facing internal criticism.
Yoav Galai is a doctoral candidate in the School of International Relations in the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on the role narratives of collective memory play in International Relations, both in helping define possibilities for action and as the object of policy.
Image source: Flickr/Meghamama