Israel’s terror fund deduction rekindles Palestinian support for Abbas
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Israel’s terror fund deduction rekindles Palestinian support for Abbas

Many Palestinians are vowing to donate salaries to prisoners, ‘martyr’ families after PA chief’s decision to refuse partial tax transfer; the fallout could see Gaza heat up as well

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 chairs a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee at PA headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 15, 2018. (AFP / ABBAS MOMANI)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee at PA headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 15, 2018. (AFP / ABBAS MOMANI)

Just as everyone was sure he was done, just as his popularity reached an all-time low, the Israeli government has revived Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On its face, Israel’s dramatic announcement last week that it was deducting about half a billion shekels ($138 million) from tax revenues collected and transferred to the PA — claiming that it is being used to pay salaries to relatives of jailed and slain terrorists — should have been a heavy blow to Abbas.

But in practice, that last days have seen an opposite trend in Palestinian public opinion. Abbas’s countermeasure of refusing to accept even a penny of the tax funds as long as Israel deducts the terror payments has caused an outpouring of support for him.

Social media has been buzzing with passionate declarations of support by Palestinian student groups, PA employees, security force members and many others, with some promising to donate their salaries to the “martyrs and prisoners.”

For example, Fadi Abu Aisha from Nablus wrote on Facebook: “His excellency, President Mahmoud Abbas… I, a military man, donate three full monthly salaries to the families of the martyrs and to our prisoners and wounded.”

Another statement by a Fatah youth group in the Kadoorie Palestine Technical University college in Tulkarem said it was giving up the student council’s funding and handing it to the martyrs and prisoners. And those are just two examples of many cases.

Suddenly, the PA and its leader are seen as unafraid of going to battle over the issue, which is considered a consensus within Palestinian society but has been harshly condemned by Israel and the United States as a direct incentive to carry out terror attacks against Israeli civilians.

Palestinians hold portraits of relatives jailed in Israeli prisons as they protest to demand for their release during a demonstration to mark Prisoners’ Day in the northern West Bank city of Nablus on April 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)

Abbas knows that his move has a precedent that ended with full capitulation by Israel. In January 2015, after the PA joined the International Criminal Court and signed the Rome Treaty, the Israeli government decided to completely halt the tax money transfer. After two months, it backtracked and said it would return the funds but deduct a third of them to pay for the PA’s old debt to Israel.

Abbas then ordered his staff not to accept any money from Israel as long as the PA didn’t receive the full tax revenue. And lo and behold, after just another month, Israel gave in and returned the full sum, to the last shekel — about $460 million for a little over three months.

That decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the security chiefs was telling. It stemmed from the understanding by all of them that it is immensely important for Israel that the PA continues to function and doesn’t collapse or go bankrupt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Feb. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)

Netanyahu understood that if the PA completely stopped paying salaries to its employees, then its security, education, health, power and other systems would collapse. Israel would have been forced to fill that vacuum to minimize the damage, or else expect a quick economic and security deterioration in the West Bank.

But the PA’s current move, a month and a half before Israeli elections, complicates matters. Abbas realizes that if Netanyahu’s government renews the tax transfer it will be strongly criticized by his political rivals, mainly from the right wing.

That can make it easier to understand that the PA is preparing for a longer struggle, with one of its first moves being a further, dramatic cut in the funds it transfers to the Gaza Strip. That will exacerbate the crisis in Gaza, create pressure on its Hamas terror rulers, and likely lead to an escalation on the border with Israel.

And thus, an Israeli decision that sounded just and logical could potentially lead to a major flareup in Gaza, a scenario that the Netanyahu government — which itself facilitated the transfer of $15 million in monthly cash payments from Qatar to Hamas — would definitely wish to avoid.

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