Another round of violence? The PA decides this week

Abbas will convene his advisers to discuss suspending security ties with Israel in the wake of official Ziad Abu Ein’s death

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 stands by the coffin of senior Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein during his funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 11, 2014. (photo credit: STR/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stands by the coffin of senior Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein during his funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 11, 2014. (photo credit: STR/Flash90)

A heart attack. That’s what the Israeli doctors who participated in the autopsy of Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein determined as the cause of his death. What’s more, they found that “the deceased suffered from an ischemic heart disease, and old scars were found in the blood vessels in his heart indicating that the deceased suffered from heart blockages in the past.”

In plain English, the man had a heart condition.

Everyone who knew Ziad Abu Ein personally knew he was not well, that he was a heavy smoker and was overweight. All the facts point to him dying of a heart attack.

And still, the Palestinians are saying that Abu Ein died from suffocation and tear gas.

And yet, in this case, everyone is probably right. In other words, the official wouldn’t have suffered a heart attack at the protest, brought on by his preexisting medical condition, if he hadn’t inhaled tear gas and been caught up in a scuffle with the Border Police officers who grabbed his neck.

The more important question right now is whether this is a casus belli for the Palestinian Authority.

Let’s start with the good news before the weekend. Despite the death of Abu  Ein — during the demonstration near Turmusaya, north of Ramallah — his funeral in the Muqata’a Thursday, an official and dignified military ceremony, was relatively calm, without the expected impassioned speeches and outbursts of anger against Israel.

PA President Mahmud Abbas chairs a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah, February 26, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90/Issam Rimawi)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah, February 26, 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The worse news is that once the funeral procession reached the cemetery near el-Bireh, heavy fire began in honor of Abu Ein. In addition, at least according to the statements of two Fatah heads, Saeb Erekat and Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian leadership that gathered Wednesday night decided to stop West Bank security cooperation with Israel.

According to the two officials, a decision was also taken to request to join the International Criminal Court, to ratify the Rome Statute (which paves the way for joining the ICC), and to appeal to the UN Security Council to recognize Palestine as a state. If this is true, and this is not some PR move, then we are on the brink of a new era in Palestinian-Israeli relations. And not a good one.

Only on Sunday, during the meeting of the PA leadership, will a final decision be made, and only then will we know if Erekat and Rajoub are right. If they are, then we are about to head into a rough, possibly violent, period.

From my conversations with various Palestinian officials in recent weeks, it seems that PA President Mahmoud Abbas believes that an escalation now in the West Bank would help his adversaries, both Israeli and Palestinian. It would boost Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of being reelected. The suspension of security ties would also weaken the PA’s position in the West Bank and strengthen Hamas.

But if Abbas does not take any drastic steps against Israel, such as ending security cooperation, then his position also weakens while Hamas grows stronger. In theory, he has to determine which option is the lesser of two evils.

But he may have a third option — announce the end of cooperation, while preserving it on the ground. That is, refrain from joint security meetings with Israeli officers, and other overt steps, but maintain quiet ties between the sides, far from the public eye.

Abbas is also not blind to what is happening in the Israeli political arena. Many of his advisers told him to ignore the upcoming elections and continue with business as usual. In other words, keep moving forward with Palestinian requests to join international organizations, while stopping the security coordination.

On the other hand, several of those closest to him whispered in his ear to wait a bit. They see the potential for major escalation as a result of these steps, and if the West Bank experiences an explosion of violence, the Israeli right-wing bloc would likely be strengthened further.

Beyond any connection to the elections, the lack of security coordination will hinder the PA’s ability to operate, and would allow Hamas to strengthen its position.

Is the die cast for a PA diplomatic war against Israel? It seems that a decision will soon be made on that matter as well.

Even if the next explosion is prevented this weekend, the conditions are growing riper for another outbreak of violence. A simple examination of the dry figures makes it clear how difficult the situation in the West Bank has become. There are 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. These numbers are not inflated or fabricated. They are the figures that the Israeli security establishment accepts, as do the Palestinians, even if some Israeli politicians reject them for political reasons.

There are 1,730,000 people living in the Gaza Strip, meaning that together, without East Jerusalem, there are 4,484,000 Palestinians. Every month, 56,000 babies are born in the West Bank alone. Five thousand people die.

The unemployment rate is rising. In the West Bank today, there is 26.3% joblessness, compared to 43% in Gaza. These are alarming figures.

What about the Palestinian budget? Without outside economic aid, the PA would not survive. Its total revenues for 2014 stand at $4.2 billion. Aid from donor countries reached $1.6 billion, or 39% of its revenues. The most significant expense is salaries, or $2 billion, 48% of total expenditures.

The economic slowdown in the West Bank is felt, and, along with the lack of a political horizon, it presents another explanation for the troubling growth of the “lone-wolf intifada,” terror attacks against Israel carried out at the personal initiative of the attackers, and not as part of an organized terrorist infrastructure.

So far, Abbas has been one of the main brakes on escalation and security deterioration in the West Bank. The question is how long he will continue to act as a stabilizing force, instead of changing the rules of the game by ending security cooperation.

To the credit of the Israeli and Palestinian security forces, to this point they have managed to contain the latest escalation in East Jerusalem. They have kept the violence from spreading to the West Bank. But we can understand, in light of the economic data, how explosive the situation in the West Bank is, and how easily it could slide into a general deterioration.

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