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The Palestinian Plan to Stop Annexation: Remind Israel What Occupation Means

2020-06-08 18:02:53

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority says it will cut the salaries of tens of thousands of its own clerks and police officers. It will slash vital funding to the impoverished Gaza Strip. And it will try any Israeli citizens or Arab residents of Jerusalem arrested on the West Bank in Palestinian courts instead of handing them over to Israel.

Desperate to deter Israel from annexing occupied territory, the Palestinians are taking a number of provocative steps to break off cooperation with Israel and force it to shoulder full responsibility, as a military occupier, for the lives of more than 2 million Palestinians on the West Bank.

While those measures may seem self-defeating, the Palestinian leadership sees them as powerful but reversible actions to get the Israelis and the international community to take them seriously and to back down — before, they say, it is too late.

“We are not nihilists, or fools, and we don’t want chaos,” said Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian official in charge of relations with Israel and one of the two closest advisers to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. “We are pragmatic,” he added. “We don’t want things to reach a point of no return. Annexation means no return in the relationship with Israel.”

“Either they backtrack on annexation and things go back to how they were, or they follow through with annexation and they go back to being the occupying power in the whole West Bank,” Mr. al-Sheikh said in an interview.

If the possibility of statehood is stripped away, he said, the Palestinian Authority would be reduced to performing civil functions like running schools, hospitals and police stations, making it effectively an agent of the Israeli occupation.

“I will not accept that my role is a service provider,” Mr. al-Sheikh said. “I’m not a municipality or a charity.”

Israeli government and military officials declined to comment on the Palestinian strategy for this article.

The Palestinians have already begun to curb security cooperation, and last week took one financial step and signaled another, either of which could lead to economic crisis and unrest.

On Wednesday, Mr. al-Sheikh announced that the authority would no longer accept the hundreds of millions of dollars in monthly transfers from Israel that fund roughly half its budget: taxes that Israel collects on its behalf.

“Of course, it is our money,” he said. “But I was receiving it on the basis of agreements between me and them.”

Rejecting it would send the authority down a path to financial ruin, he said, forcing salary cuts, layoffs, agency mergers or even a government shutdown.

Jehad Harb, an analyst of Palestinian politics, said that forsaking the tax transfers could contribute to turmoil by harming people’s livelihoods while sapping the authority’s control over its employees.

“The people see the government as something that benefits them,” Mr. Harb said. “It provides salaries, education, health care and welfare. If it can no longer do any of those things, it will lose its legitimacy and the people will stop paying attention to it.”

Separately, Mr. al-Sheikh also said that the authority would slash the $105 million it sends to the Gaza Strip each month in salaries and to cover utility fees and medical expenses. Any cuts would erode stability in Gaza, where the militant group Hamas is the de facto government.

Mr. Harb said that if history were any guide, such a move would create trouble for Israel. “Halting the delivery of funds to Gaza will put pressure on Hamas, which likely will respond by confronting Israel,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority has been making the communication shutdown costly in other important ways, including refusing to cover the fees for dozens of Palestinians seeking medical treatment at Israeli hospitals.

Fawzi Aqara, who lives outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, said his son Mayyas, 12, had been unable to return to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for treatment for bone marrow cancer. “I need an alternative,” he said, but none exists.

The authority has also stopped processing permits for Palestinians to enter Israel, but it has not prevented them from applying directly to Israel’s military administration.

The policy created a chaotic scene unfolded in Hebron in the West Bank last week when thousands of Palestinians seeking permits to work in Israel descended suddenly upon a military office.

That only underscored the Palestinians’ point.

“Every day, I’ll be retreating from my responsibilities,” Mr. al-Sheikh said. “I am telling the Israelis, if this situation continues, you will have to take full responsibility as an occupying power. It could go back to like it was before Oslo.”

Nowhere is the Palestinian strategy more carefully calibrated than in the area of security cooperation. Since last month, the authority’s 30,000 armed police and intelligence officers, who also protect Mr. Abbas from his political opponents, have stopped communicating with their Israeli and American counterparts. That rupture has prompted speculation about whether the result would be to unleash or permit a new wave of violence.

Mr. al-Sheikh insisted that the security services would continue to maintain law and order and fight terrorism, but acting on their own. “We will prevent violence and chaos,” he said. “We will not allow bloodshed. That is a strategic decision.”

But security coordination with Israel was a means to a political end, Mr. al-Sheikh said. “I want peace and two states,” he said. “But I’m not a collaborator with Israel.”

Two instances on Thursday alone underscored the Palestinians’ determination to avoid flare-ups with Israel.

Outside Jenin, they unearthed dozens of pipe bombs, including some along a road frequently used by Israeli soldiers on raids to arrest Palestinians, the Israeli news media reported.

And in Nablus, when a large convoy of Israeli troops escorted hundreds of Jewish worshipers to Joseph’s Tomb, seven Palestinian officers guarding the holy site left as they saw the Israeli contingent arriving, to avoid any confrontation. They resumed their posts only after the Israelis left, but without any coordination, senior Palestinian security officials said.

Asked how the security forces would respond if they learned of a Palestinian’s intent to attack Israelis, Mr. al-Sheikh said that they would arrest him if he were still on the West Bank. But if the attacker were already inside Israel, he hinted that the Palestinians might warn Israel through an intermediary. “I will find a way to stop him,” he said.

Israeli experts say that such indirect warnings could prove unworkable.

“I’m not sure the U.N., the Red Cross or any other organization has direct channels with the right people in the Israeli defense establishment,” said Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli military intelligence official. “It could be that by the time the information goes through such a twisted channel, the terrorists will have already executed their attack.”

Mr. Milshtein said that the communication shutdown would unavoidably hamper efforts to prevent violence. It could foster suspicion where there had been trust, allow militants to exploit the fragility of the situation and make it easier for a stray incident to escalate, rather than being quickly defused, he said.

Mr. al-Sheikh also said that any Israelis arrested in the West Bank would no longer be turned over to the Israeli authorities. Palestinian security officials and two former Israeli military officials said that several Arab residents of Jerusalem and Arab citizens of Israel have already been held by the Palestinian Authority on charges including weapons trafficking.

“I will not hand them over to Israel,” Mr. al-Sheikh said. “One who’s here with Israeli citizenship and wants to sell drugs — I can’t arrest him? If he makes a mistake in my area, I will try him in my area. We will not turn anyone over to Israel.”

Mohammed Najib contributed reporting.


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