G7 calls on Israel to stop hobbling PA; says UNRWA must operate unhindered in Gaza

Joint communique welcomes new Palestinian Authority cabinet, singles out withholding PA tax revenue a day after Smotrich rerouted funds to Israeli victims of terrorism

Pope Francis and leaders of the G7  nations other guest nations stand for a photo, at the G7 summit, Friday, June 14, 2024, in Borgo Egnazia, near Bari, southern Italy. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Pope Francis and leaders of the G7 nations other guest nations stand for a photo, at the G7 summit, Friday, June 14, 2024, in Borgo Egnazia, near Bari, southern Italy. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Group of Seven nations warned Israel on Friday to stop any “actions that weaken the Palestinian Authority,” after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich moved to withhold tax funds from the Palestinian Authority.

The final communique from the G7 leading industrialized nations’ three-day summit in Italy also said that UNRWA, the United Nations aid agency for Palestinian refugees, must be allowed to work unhindered in war-torn Gaza.

Under the 1990s Oslo Accords, Israel collects tax revenue on behalf of the Palestinians, and it has used the money as a tool to pressure the Palestinian Authority, which administers some parts of the West Bank. Hamas violently expelled the PA from Gaza in 2007.

Israel has accused UNRWA, the largest employer in the Palestinian territories, of turning a blind eye to Hamas activities and employees of actively aiding terror groups.

The UN agency, which coordinates nearly all aid to Gaza, has been in crisis since January, when Israel accused about a dozen of the UNRWA’s 13,000 Gaza employees of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack, when thousands of terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and take 251 hostages, sparking the war.

Israel’s accusations prompted many governments, including top donor the United States, to suspend funding to the agency, threatening its efforts to deliver aid in Gaza, although several have since resumed payments.

An independent review of UNRWA, led by French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna, found some “neutrality-related issues” but said Israel had yet to provide evidence for its main allegations.

File – This picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli army on February 8, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan said on Friday that they agreed “it is critical that UNRWA and other UN organizations and agencies’ distribution networks be fully able to deliver aid to those who need it most, fulfilling their mandate effectively.”

The group also welcomed the recent formation of a new PA cabinet “as it undertakes the reforms that are indispensable to enable it to discharge its responsibilities in the West Bank and, in the aftermath of the conflict, in Gaza.”

Much of the international community want to see the PA play a major role in administering post-war Gaza, something the current Israeli government rejects.

The G7 called on Israel to release tax revenues in light of the PA’s “urgent fiscal needs,” and demanded that Israel “remove or relax other measures to avoid further exacerbating the economic situation in the West Bank.”

The statement came a day after Smotrich said he would reroute some NIS 130 million ($35 million) of the funds earmarked for the PA to “victims of terrorism” in Israel.

File – Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich addresses the press ahead of his Religious Zionism faction’s faction meeting in the Knesset, June 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Smotrich initially froze the tax revenue transfers to the PA after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught,  The far-right minister later agreed to send the money via Norway, which transferred it to the PA.

Following Norway’s announcement in May that it — along with Ireland and Spain — would recognize Palestinian statehood, Smotrich again froze the funds, in what he called an act of “historic justice” given the PA’s financial support for families of Palestinians who had attacked Israelis.

The US and other Israeli allies have expressed concern that such a move would jeopardize the already-beleaguered PA’s ability to pay thousands of salaries, further stoking tensions in the West Bank.

“Actions that weaken the Palestinian Authority must stop, including the withholding of clearance revenues by the Israeli Government,” read Friday’s G7 communique. “Maintaining economic stability in the West Bank is critical for regional security.”

Illustrative: The municipality building of Ramallah, the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority, is adorned with the flags of Spain, Ireland and Norway on May 24, 2024, in appreciation of the three countries’ intent to recognize Palestinian statehood, announced the previous day. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

The G7 statement also reiterated the group’s concern at the “unacceptable number of civilian casualties” in the Hamas-Israel war, now in its ninth month.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. The figure, which cannot be verified, includes some 15,000 gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle.

The G7 leaders called on Israel to refrain from a major offensive in the Strip’s southernmost city of Rafah, citing “further dire consequences for civilians.” Israel has claimed such an operation is essential to dismantle Hamas.

The G7 leaders also endorsed a truce and hostage release deal presented by US President Joe Biden on May 31. The leaders called on Hamas to approve the deal while welcoming “Israel’s acceptance of the proposal and readiness to move forward with it.”

US President Joe Biden announces a proposed ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza at the White House’s State Dining Room in Washington, DC, May 31, 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

In addition, the communique included unequivocal condemnations of Hamas’s October 7 attacks and Iran’s unprecedented April 12-13 missile and drone strike on Israel.

It also expressed concern about the ongoing fighting between Israel and Iranian proxy Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon. The G7 leader called on “all involved actors to exercise restraint to avoid further escalation.”

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