Abbas said to warn Netanyahu that West Bank on verge of ‘explosion’

PA minister tells Israeli counterpart of mounting anger and confusion as Israel withholds funds from Ramallah at same time as it edges toward a long-term deal with Hamas in Gaza

Palestinian Fatah supporters hold a portrait of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a celebration marking the 55th anniversary of the Fatah movement, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Palestinian Fatah supporters hold a portrait of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a celebration marking the 55th anniversary of the Fatah movement, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly sent a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning him that Israel’s decision to cut funds from Ramallah at the same time as it works toward a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza is fueling mounting anger in the West Bank.

According to a Chanel 13 news report on Wednesday, Abbas dispatched PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh to meet with Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon after the security cabinet announced on Sunday that Israel would withhold around NIS 149 million ($43 million) in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians over their payments to wounded Palestinian terrorists and other security prisoners and the families of slain attackers.

Israel forcefully opposes the payments, arguing that they incentivize violent attacks against Israelis. The Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership contends that they seek to provide social welfare to injured Palestinians and Palestinian families who have lost a breadwinner.

According to the report, Al-Sheikh told Kahlon that the PA viewed the move very seriously and said it undermined the cooperation between the PA and Israel.

“You are going for a deal with Hamas but at the same time slap more sanctions on the Palestinian Authority,” the report, citing Israeli officials, quoted al-Sheikh as saying.

File: Then-coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh sign an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (Courtesy COGAT)

Al-Sheikh told Kahlon that the PA opposes violence, but Israel’s decision “had stirred emotions,” and that the West Bank was on the “brink of an explosion.”

According to the report, Kahlon conveyed the message to Netanyahu and also briefed the cabinet on Wednesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and then Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, left, speak as they head the first cabinet meeting of the new coalition government at Abbas’ office in Gaza City, March 18, 2007. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

Abbas has previously expressed his surprise that Israel seems to be trying to undermine the PA at the same time that it is giving concessions to Hamas.

Hamas is a terror group that frequently issues threats against Israel, fires rockets at its territory and avowedly seeks its destruction. In contrast, the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership coordinates security with Israel and recognizes its existence. Abbas has frequently said that he opposes violence and would like to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, he and his hierarchy are seen by the Israeli government as inciting against Israel and seeking to demonize and delegitimize it.

Members of the Izz-a-din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamist terror group Hamas, take part in a march in Gaza City, July 25, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

On Sunday, in a speech to Fatah members at the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas called the situation a “strange paradox.”

“Here, we are blocked from funds and the land is being gradually taken. Over there [in Gaza], understandings for a calming [of tensions] and quiet are being done,” he said.

“The strange paradox is that there are deals for a calming [there], while there is a daily decision and decree to squeeze us here,” he added.

For over a year, Egypt and other international parties have brokered various informal ceasefire understandings between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, including Hamas, which controls the coastal enclave.

The understandings have largely entailed Israel lifting restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza, in exchange for Hamas maintaining relative quiet in the border region between the coastal enclave and the Jewish state.

The PA has vehemently opposed them, arguing Hamas does not have the legitimacy to make deals with Israel.

Channel 12 reported on Sunday that Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council, presented to the high-level security cabinet a proposal for additional ceasefire understandings with Hamas, without citing a source.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry office in Jerusalem, September 23, 2019. (Flash90)

According to Channel 13, Kahlon tried to reassure the PA, saying the move was not a sign of new sanctions, but rather Israel completing the process it began earlier in the year.

Israel started to implement a new law in February 2019 that allows it to withhold the taxes that it gathers for the PA equivalent to the amount Israeli officials determine Ramallah pays security prisoners and their families as well as wounded terrorists and attackers and the families of dead attackers.

In February, Israel said it would deduct approximately NIS 500 million ($144,578,030) from the tax transfers to the PA spread out over 12 months for its stipends to security prisoners, many of them convicted terrorists, and their families. At the time, Israeli authorities made no mention of funds they planned to withhold from the Palestinians for the salaries they give wounded attackers and the families of dead ones.

An official in the Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sunday’s announcement aimed to enforce the part of the law that Israel failed to do so earlier in 2019.

“We are seeking the full implementation of the law now,” the official said, noting funds would be deducted over the coming 12 months.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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