Israeli-Palestinian security ties likely to continue despite US aid freeze

Israeli-Palestinian security ties likely to continue despite US aid freeze

Coordination has been thrown into doubt by new American law that ends financial assistance if Palestinians do not agree to pay costly court rulings in favor of terror victims

Palestinian policemen participate in a training session at their headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 30, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
Palestinian policemen participate in a training session at their headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 30, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Israeli and Palestinian officials on Thursday signaled that security coordination between them will continue, despite a midnight deadline that cuts off all US assistance to the Palestinians.

Security cooperation in the West Bank is one of the few remaining areas of contact between Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority after years of otherwise rocky ties, with both sides joined in a common struggle against Hamas.

This coordination has been thrown into doubt by a law that requires the US to cut off its financial assistance to the Palestinians, including millions of dollars in security aid, as of midnight Friday. While all sides agree the coordination is beneficial, it was doubtful the issue would be resolved before the deadline. Still, there were no signs that the behind-the-scenes cooperation would end.

“Security cooperation is important for Israel and for the Palestinians,” Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Under the law, known as the Anti-Terrorism Cooperation Act, the Palestinian Authority would be disqualified from receiving any US aid unless it agrees to pay court judgments of up to hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of American victims of Palestinian attacks. The deadline for accepting that condition is January 31.

The Palestinians oppose the law, and in any case, court settlements far exceed the aid itself, which totaled $61 million last year. The US has provided more than $850 million to support the Palestinian security forces since 2007, when it ramped up assistance after Hamas seized Gaza.

The White House and some pro-Israel members of Congress have been looking for ways to preserve the security aid. But the recent month-long US government shutdown delayed these efforts, meaning any solution will likely be only in the coming weeks or months.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Group of 77 on January 15, 2019 at the United Nations in New York (Don EMMERT / AFP)

In Washington, a US official said the administration is resigned to the deadline passing, but expressed hopes that the assistance could be restored in the coming weeks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

President Donald Trump and senior administration officials all support a restoration of the funding, though Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, an influential member of the Senate Finance Committee who sponsored the anti-terrorism legislation, opposes it.

“Why is State Dept now putting PLO wishes over justice for US victims,” Grassley recently tweeted.

In the meantime, it remains unclear what will happen in the field. For now, it appears the coordination will continue, even if both sides have complaints.

For Palestinians, coordination is deeply unpopular with the general public, which seeks independent statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials also say that frequent Israeli military raids to counter terrorism in Palestinian areas, coupled with a decade-long freeze in peace efforts, have undermined trust.

Their misgivings have been deepened by US policies seen as unfairly favoring Israel, such as American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars of US aid for economic and development programs.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians have told the US they don’t want any US assistance as long as the anti-terrorism law remains in effect. “We don’t want any aid that can take us to court,” he said.

Yet he stopped short of threatening to halt the coordination.

Saeb Erekat speaks to journalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 1, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Adnan Damiri, spokesman for the Palestinian security forces, said so far there have been no instructions from political leaders to change the cooperation.

He said the Palestinians have already weathered “much bigger” American funding cuts. “We will live with this one too,” he said. “This cut will have no impact on our decisions.”

A second senior security official said cooperation will continue, calling it a “mutual Palestinian-Israeli interest.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a classified issue.

The Israeli military did not respond to requests for comment.

Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks during a brief press conference before a Security Council meeting at UN Headquarters, July 24, 2018 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Danon, the Israeli ambassador, said that while the system is imperfect and subject to mistrust, it is still valuable to all sides.

“We think it is valuable to have cooperation, to have a dialogue, to share information,” he said, saying that Israel has also shared information about Hamas threats against Abbas’s government.

“But with the Palestinians it’s tricky, because you never know if they are fully committed to fight those radicals,” he said.

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