Abbas bluster at UN isn’t what should worry Israel

Abbas bluster at UN isn’t what should worry Israel

With sources saying PA chief is prepared to sever the flow of PA funds to Gaza if his demands to Hamas not met, the threat of violent conflict grows

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2017. (AP/Seth Wenig)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2017. (AP/Seth Wenig)

On Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will give a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York that several of his associates have promised will be “extraordinary.” Others have predicted a dramatic, even historic, announcement.

Abbas’s associates, however, have cried wolf more than once in recent years, announcing dramatic speeches that turned out to contain no particularly unusual statements. It may be that this time as well, Abbas will settle for another oration in which he criticizes the United States over its unilateral moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians, calls upon the international community to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to keep the two-state solution alive, and, of course, level countless charges against Israel.

Though Abbas may also claim that Israel is not keeping its part of the Oslo Accords, and that they are therefore null and void, his speech is unlikely to have any lasting significance.

What should bother Israel at this stage is not so much the content of his speech in New York in a few days’ time, but the actual measures that Abbas is planning for the near future.

More than one source has said that he has given Hamas, via Egypt, an explicit ultimatum: Agree to transfer responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority, including handing over “the weapons of resistance,” by early October. If not, Abbas will stop the transfer of PA funds to the Gaza Strip.

The funds in question, which are considered critical, amount to $96 million per month and are used to pay the salaries of approximately 60,000 PA officials in Gaza (who have been receiving half their pay for months in any case), as well as for vital services such as the four hours of electricity a day that the average citizen of Gaza receives, in addition to fuel and medicine.

To stop the transfer of these funds to Gaza would be tantamount to a financial death sentence that could have critical significance for Israel — in the form of an escalation in tensions, outbreaks of violence, and finally a large-scale conflict with Hamas.

Palestinians walk on a dark street during a power outage in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, June 11, 2017. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

One way of dealing with such moves by Abbas that has been examined in the past is to deduct the funds he withholds from Gaza from the tax payments that Israel transfers to the PA — meaning that Israel would subtract every shekel that Abbas decided to not to give to Gaza and itself transfer the total sum to the Strip in one way or another.

But actually doing so is not so simple. First, how can Israel find a mechanism for paying the salaries of 60,000 PA officials in Gaza? Also, how will Israel make certain that the money will reach the inhabitants’ own pockets rather than Hamas coffers? And even if a way is found to make sure of that, the process would make Israel the player intervening to ensure Hamas’s survival in Gaza, albeit indirectly.

Furthermore, the last time Israel tried to deduct these taxes from the monies it transfers to the PA, Abbas ordered that no tax funds from Israel were to be accepted at all. No PA officials, including those in the West Bank, were paid for three months, creating an immediate pressure-cooker effect that led to the threat of a violent outbreak in the West Bank as well as in Gaza.

When the three months were up, Israel gave in and resumed transferring the tax funds, in their entirety, to the PA.

The security card

Abbas has another weapon he can use against Israel if the latter should decide to withhold the tax funds: He can stop the security coordination between Israel and the PA, as he did after the crisis over the metal detectors installed at the Temple Mount last summer following a terror attack at the holy site.

Meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security officials ceased and coordination was reduced to a minimum, which created a fair amount of tension between the sides. Such a measure would lead, over the long term, to conflict with the PA in the West Bank instead of with Hamas in Gaza.

It should be noted that, at present, security coordination between Israel and the PA continues.

A 2017 report issued this week by the US State Department about the war on terror in the Middle East stated explicitly that the PA and its security forces had operated against terrorism and prevented terror attacks against Israelis by, among other things, arresting members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The report makes positive mention of the PA’s Preventive Security Service, headed Ziyad Hab al-Rih, and the General Intelligence Service, led by Majed Faraj, as the leaders in this work.

Illustrative: Palestinian Authority security forces gather during a protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah calling on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to end financial sanctions on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, on June 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

Israel also has positive things to say about the security coordination as everything continues as usual, be it arrests or the prevention of terror attacks.

Even in the recent incident when a van full of Israeli soldiers entered the Qalandiya refugee camp, Palestinian police officers were the ones to rescue the soldiers, who suffered no more than light injuries — a fact that is extraordinary considering the location and timing.

While this coordination is vital to the PA, it is every bit as critical for Israel.

Abbas holds the future of the security coordination and, to a large extent, the status quo surrounding Gaza, in his hands. He shows impressive ability to control what happens on the ground, has a dramatic influence on the progress of the talks between Egypt, Hamas and Israel on a ceasefire agreement, and has succeeded, by his actions, in changing Cairo’s direction.

Egypt’s thinking about an arrangement without Abbas has undergone a complete shift: Cairo is now working for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and will work on an arrangement only once it has been achieved.

The rais

Abbas, at 83, has also succeeded in securing his status as the sole, all-powerful ruler in the PA and in Fatah, with no one in the latter organization challenging him.

While there is no shortage of conflicts in Hamas between those in Gaza led by Yahya Sinwar and those outside of it under Saleh al-Arouri, Fatah — which is used to rivalries and quarrels — only takes its marching orders from Abbas.

Palestinian investigator Tawfik Tirawi speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Tawfik Tirawi (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

No real discussion about a successor is currently taking place, though various high-ranking officials in Fatah are quietly preparing for the day after Abbas. (Some are doing this rather noisily — such as Tawfik Tirawi, some of whose people were arrested by the security services for manufacturing weapons in gun-making shops in the northern West Bank.)

All these developments between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and first and foremost among them Abbas’s imminent decision to stop the transfer of $96 million per month, are expected to have a dramatic effect on the state of affairs between Israel and Gaza.

A Palestinian man climbs a fence as tear gas canisters fired by Israeli forces land through black smoke of burning tires during a riot along the security fence east of Gaza City on September 14, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP Photo)

His intended funding halt finds UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency which provides direct or indirect assistance to every third Palestinian in the West Bank, already on the verge of financial collapse, defunded by the Trump administration. Gaza’s sewage and water systems will also be ceasing operations and as the financial hardship intensifies, more and more members of Gaza’s upper middle class are falling into poverty.

And Hamas? Its purpose is clear: It will not take this lying down. It intends to do everything it can to force Israel to act decisively against such a move by Abbas.

Hamas does not want war at this stage; rather, it is planning “only” to boost the border clashes, the launching of incendiary balloons toward Israel, and so on.

But if these violent demonstrations fail to bring about any real change in the financial situation in Gaza, Hamas will likely not stop there. It will drag both sides into a violent, bloody conflict in order to keep control of the Palestinian enclave.

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