After top official’s death, PA meeting will determine how bad things get

If Palestinians decide to end security coordination and expedite international moves toward statehood, an escalation of hostilities is likely. But it can still be averted

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 official Ziad Abu Ein, on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 (photo credit: Facebook)
Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein, on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 (photo credit: Facebook)

It’s still difficult to determine whether the death of Ziad Abu Ein, one of the Fatah heads in the West Bank, during a demonstration north of Ramallah on Wednesday, will lead to a larger flare-up.

The potential is certainly there, especially in light of the declared PA decision to halt its security coordination with Israel. One of Abu Ein’s fellow Fatah members, Jibril Rajoub of the Fatah Central Committee, told The Times of Israel that all aspects of security coordination will be halted indefinitely, and furthermore, that the PA intends to turn to numerous international organizations with a request to accept Palestine as a full member state as soon as possible.

In a different interview, Rajoub added that the Palestinian leadership would meet Wednesday evening in order to reach formal decisions on these issues.

But the situation on the ground, initially at least, diverged from Rajoub’s statements to the press.

On Wednesday afternoon, the various Israeli and PA hierarchies maintained security cooperation at all levels. No Palestinian official formally informed Israel of a move to stop the coordination. Quite the contrary, even with regard to the death of Abu Ein: The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, and his Palestinian counterpart, Hussein Al-Sheikh, reached an agreement to allow an Israeli pathologist to participate in the autopsy of Abu Ein (a friend of Al-Sheikh’s), alongside Jordanian pathologists.

Ironically, and perhaps sadly, the details of the incident itself are no longer so relevant. The Palestinians decided that Abu Ein is a shahid (martyr) who was killed in a clash with the IDF. This is despite eyewitness accounts which maintain that Abu Ein was shoved during the protest, but nothing else. In photos and footage documenting some of his last moments, Abu Ein is seen speaking with an IDF officer and yelling at him, but there is no violence. Even afterwards, when Abu Ein didn’t feel well, he sits down on the ground, but there are no signs of violence around him. Is it possible that heart problems caused his death? Certainly.

The problem, which is similar to other cases in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is that the facts are not necessarily the key issue. This explains why the potential for escalation is so real. On the backdrop of economic stagnation among the Palestinians, and the increase in violent incidents among the Palestinians and settlers, even a death that may have been caused by ill health could signal the beginning of a long and dangerous deterioration of the security situation.

Abu Ein, 55, is one of the best-known figures to Israeli journalists covering the West Bank. He speaks Hebrew fluently, spent 13 years in Israeli prisons overall (his first incarceration was for planting a bomb in a garbage can in Tiberias and killing two Israeli teenagers). He is a confidant of Marwan Barghouti, the commander of the Fatah Tanzim militia. In April 2002, Barghouti hid out in Abu Ein’s home, where he was ultimately arrested by the IDF’s Duvdevan undercover unit. This reporter has visited the house and spoken to Abu Ein several times about Barghouti’s arrest. Barghouti made a careless phone call, which led to the discovery of his whereabouts and his arrest in Ziad Abu Ein’s home.

In the past few years, Abu Ein had focused on the prisoners issue. He was present at every prisoners release, and frequently was interviewed by the Israeli press. Despite his terrorist history, in the past few years he was considered one of the most moderate members of Fatah, and supported negotiations and dialogue with Israel.

Recently, he became the head of the office which coordinates opposition to settlements and the security barrier, in a position which is equivalent to that of a minister.

Most likely, by late Wednesday, we will know whether the announcement about stopping security coordination was merely an empty threat or whether the PA really intends to implement it.

The steps the Palestinian leadership decides to take will likely establish the general direction in which we are headed. If a formal decision to end the security coordination between Israel and the PA is made, and the PA does turn to the international organizations for membership, a marked escalation of hostilities will be closer than ever. On the other hand, if the PA officials exercise restraint, this could yet be averted.

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