Middle East Eye / June 18, 2020
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave a strongly worded speech in Ramallah last month, denouncing Israel’s planned annexation and threatening retaliation.
Abbas has come up with a plan for that reprisal, but as with the boy who cried wolf, no one will believe him until it actually happens.
At first sight, his plan contains little that has not been threatened before, but never acted on – even at times of severe provocation, as in 2017, when Israel erected metal detectors at the entrances to al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or in 2018, when the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem in violation of international law. Will this time be any different?
There is reason to think it might be. Abbas’ plan is more detailed than previous warnings, setting out steps to return the occupied West Bank to pre-Oslo days if Israel goes ahead with its planned annexation.
Before the 1993 Oslo agreement created the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel, as the occupying power, was responsible for the day-to-day welfare, services, salaries and policing of the Palestinian population. After Oslo, it was able to offload these burdens to the PA, and that has been the situation ever since.
The Abbas plan proposes to end this arrangement by terminating all relations with Israel, including security coordination, and pulling out of Oslo. This could include disbanding the PA, its role reduced to civil functions such as running schools, hospitals and police stations. The two-state solution, killed off by Israel’s annexation, would no longer be an option.
Drastic cuts to the PA’s budget would have to follow, reducing the salaries of thousands of security and other staff. The monthly payment of $105m to Gaza would be slashed, and the transfer of taxes hitherto collected by Israel on behalf of the PA would stop, leading to serious financial loss and possibly a full government shutdown.
In other spheres, the PA would cease paying for medical treatment of sick Palestinians in Israeli hospitals. Permits for Palestinian workers to enter Israel would no longer be processed by the PA, resulting in their non-admittance and consequent loss of earnings. Desperate workers would then have to apply for permits directly to the Israeli military administration of the occupied territories.
Ending security coordination
The most striking aspect of the plan, however, is the threat to end security coordination with Israel and the US. Abbas seems to be serious this time, and the process has already started, according to Israeli sources.
The CIA has reportedly been notified of the PA’s intentions for its 30,000 armed police and intelligence officers to cease communicating with their Israeli and US counterparts early next month, with the planned annexation set to begin as early as 1 July. PA security forces are reported to have begun withdrawing from Area B, mostly controlled by Israel, but with a minor PA presence.
If Abbas chooses to continue along this path, the price for Palestinians will be high: 80,000 PA employees – 44 percent of the total public sector – who work in the security industry will be left without income, with budget cuts of around a third of the PA’s total expenditures. Ending security coordination will also be a massive blow for Israel, which has relied for decades on subcontracting West Bank policing to the PA.
Abbas’ calculation is surely that violence, intended or not, will be incited by these hardships and inevitably erupt in the occupied West Bank, forcing Israel to control the Palestinian population once again. Whether that will happen remains an open question.
Hamas and many in Fatah have signalled their approval of Abbas’ plan, but it has attracted little interest among wider Palestinian society, who are mindful of similar previous threats that came to naught. There is widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian leadership, viewed as incompetent and corrupt. Consequently, there has been limited analysis and commentary on Abbas’ plan in the Palestinian press.
The fact that the PA’s previous threats to end security cooperation with Israel have been empty is understandable. Israel has total control over the movement of people and goods throughout the occupied territories. Abbas himself needs Israel’s permission to travel, and the PA’s basic powers depend on Israeli authorisation. Without it, economic activity in the occupied West Bank would collapse, paralysing the PA.
Yet, Abbas now has no alternative. If Israel goes ahead with annexation, it would end the PA’s raison d’etre. The authority was set up to build a Palestinian state; annexation would render this project obsolete. In that context, the PA’s response is rational and the only way to save itself from collapse.
This sorry cycle of events goes back to Oslo, and before that, to the inexplicable international license given to Israel since 1967 to colonise the Palestinian territories and impose control over every aspect of Palestinian life. In that sense, Israel’s latest annexation drive is no surprise – and the Palestinian counter-plan, if anything, comes too late.
This leaves us with many key questions: how will its dire consequences for the population be managed? What plan exists to deal with Israel’s response, which will be brutal?
Even with all that, and despite its shortcomings, Abbas’ plan merits that Palestinians set aside their scepticism and offer support, as should everyone in solidarity with them.
Ghada Karmi is a former research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter