New Israeli punitive measures hold PA ‘hostage’ amid international silence

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  January 13, 2023

Israel announced a series of punitive measures in response to a UN resolution calling for the ICJ to issue an opinion on the decades-long occupation. Experts say the measures reveal the true powerlessness of the PA, and warn lack of international accountability will only worsen the situation on the ground.

The Israeli government announced that it will enforce a series of measures to punish Palestinians over the Palestinian Authority’s latest push for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an opinion on Israel’s decades-long occupation.

On January 6, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, which is comprised of some of the most far-right extremist lawmakers in the history of the Israeli government, announced a number of punitive measures targeting Palestinian citizens and officials.

Netanyahu’s office said the measures were a “response to the Palestinian Authority’s decision to wage political and legal war against the State of Israel.” 

The list of sanctions outlined five punitive measures:

  • Israel will withhold $150 million in Palestinian tax revenues, which Israel collects on behalf of the PA. The tax revenues, which are collected on Palestinian imports and exports, represent a major source of income for the PA. 
  • Israel will deduct approximately $40 million from the withheld tax revenues and transfer the money to Israeli citizens whose family members were killed by Palestinians.  
  • Israel will completely freeze building permits for Palestinians in Area C of the occupied West Bank. Area C makes up more than 60% of the occupied Palestinian territory and is under complete Israeli military control. Israel has a long-held practice of rarely approving Palestinian construction in Area C while enforcing a policy of home demolitions.
  • Israel will deny “VIP benefits” to PA officials which allow them to move freely through Israeli checkpoints and border crossings. Officials involved in any diplomatic or legal efforts to hold Israel accountable will be targeted.  
  • Israel will take action against Palestinian organizations that “promote terrorist activity or any hostile activity, including political and legal action against Israel under the guise of humanitarian work.”

Following the announcement of the measures, ultranationalist far-right lawmaker and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted that hoped even more steps would be taken “against those who support terrorism and try to put pressure on Israel.”

On December 31, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the ICJ to issue an opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s prolonged and illegal occupation of the Palestinian territory. The move was welcomed by Palestinian officials, who had pushed for the resolution, calling for Israel to be “held accountable for its ongoing crimes against the Palestinians.”

The resolution asked the ICJ to address the issues of Israel’s occupation, settlements, annexation, discriminatory legislation, and “measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem.” It also asks for an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation for the UN itself and third party states. 

The ICJ previously ruled in 2004 that Israel’s Separation Wall in the West Bank was illegal, just two years after the construction of the barrier began. At the time, Israel rejected the ruling, calling it “politically motivated,” and continued on with the construction of the wall, which is still being built today. 

It could actually take a number of years for the ICJ to release its opinion, which, although binding, the court has no power to enforce. Despite this, the Israeli reaction to the resolution was swift. 

Just two days after the announcement, Israel revoked the travel permit of Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki, banning him from leaving the West Bank. The Israeli-entry permits of three senior Fatah officials were also revoked. 

Palestinian officials and rights groups slammed the measures, with some describing it as “political blackmail.” Palestinian human rights experts warn that the targeting of top officials like al-Maliki is just the tip of the iceberg, and that ordinary Palestinians will have the most to lose. 

“This is not surprising, unfortunately. This government aims at breaking the Palestinians into submission to its settler-colonial supremacist domination,” Ahmed Abofoul, legal researcher and advocacy officer at Al-Haq, a Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights organization, told Mondoweiss.

Abofoul warned of the increased dangers faced by organizations like Al-Haq, which was one of six Palestinian civil society groups that was criminalized by Israel in 2021, and deemed as a “terror” organization, despite the lack of evidence proving such claims. 

“It seems we are moving towards the next step in this repression against Palestinian civil society. Israel has already brazenly designated our organization, among others, as ‘terrorist organizations’, raided our offices, threatened our directors, imposed travel bans, and is now saying it will take things further,” he said. “No one knows exactly what will happen, but we won’t be surprised, nor deterred, by anything.”

Policy of ‘blackmailing’

Israel’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in PA tax revenues was, to many, unsurprising. It’s a practice that has been in place for years, and in 2018, a law was passed requiring the Israeli government to withhold the equivalent amount of money that the PA is estimated to pay out to Palestinian prisoners, martyrs, and their families. 

The matter of the payments was brought to the forefront again in 2022 when the security cabinet of then prime minister Yair Lapid voted to withhold 600 million shekels ($176 million) from the PA. 

The PA “martyrs fund,” as it’s commonly referred to, provides financial support for the families of Palestinians who are killed by Israel. It also provides monthly stipends to Palestinian political prisoners, and those injured by Israeli gunfire. 

While successive Israeli governments have argued that the program “incentivizes terrorism,” Palestinians maintain that the primary driving force that causes Palestinians to carry out attacks targeting Israelis is the decades-long Israeli military occupation. 

Palestinians also view the payment program as a legitimate means of supporting people considered to be prisoners of war and political prisoners, as well as the families who have, in many cases,  lost the primary breadwinners of their family to Israeli violence, and in many cases, also had their homes punitively destroyed by the Israeli government.  

According to the PA, from 2019 until 2022, Israel deducted around $570 million from the Palestinian tax funds under the pretext of offsetting PA payments to prisoners and the families of martyrs.  

“The Israeli apartheid measures won’t only have consequences on the Palestinian government and the families of martyrs, but on every Palestinian,” Abofoul told Mondoweiss.

“This money not only helps the families of Palestinian killed by Israel, but it helps the Palestinian economy as well,” Abofoul said, adding that for months the PA has been unable to pay its employees in full and that withholding the tax revenues will only exacerbate the issue in the West Bank, and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Abofoul added that while the policy of withholding tax revenues is not new, Israel’s plans to take nearly $40 million of the revenues and give it to Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, is a new development. 

“All of this makes the Palestinians more vulnerable. It’s a colonial tactic that seeks to keep the Palestinian indigenous people under control,” he said. “It will have great implications on Palestinian society as a whole, but mostly on the families mourning those they lost because of Israel, and many of whom are now without homes or an income.”

Ines Abdel Razek, the Executive Director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy (PIPD), told Mondoweiss that the measures are part of an effort by the new Israeli government to set the tone for how the next few years are going to look like for Palestinians. 

“The new government wants to strike a political tone of bullying and gaslighting,” Abdel Razek said. “This is part of the tactics they can then use to get the PA leadership to give in to Israel’s demands.”

“We’ve seen the PA and banks give in before, closing the accounts of prisoners and martyrs’ families,” she said, referring to the 2020 decision of the Jordanian-based Cairo-Amman Bank, which operations in the West Bank, to close the accounts of several Palestinians who receive payments from the PA through the martyrs fund. 

“Not only is Israel doubling down its repression, violence, apartheid, and colonization, it’s also bullying the PA for moving a single finger in trying to question that,” she said. “It’s a dire asymmetric power dynamic that Israel is exploiting.”

PA ‘hostage’ to Israel

When Netanyahu’s government announced the punitive measures targeting the PA’s tax revenues and the VIP benefits of certain officials, PA officials reacted with outrage and indignation. 

Members of the PLO executive committee slammed it as “vindictive,” while the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called it an act of “piracy, looting, and vengeance.”

Shtayyeh described the measures as “a new war against the Palestinian people, their resources and funds, and a war” against the PA, saying, “these cuts are illegitimate and illegal.” Shtayyeh also urged US officials to “quickly act to put an end to the unilateral Israeli measures and threats that undermine the Palestinian National Authority.”

Following the revocation of his travel permit, foreign minister al-Maliki released a statement saying Palestinian officials were ”studying the legal and political steps to respond” to Israel’s actions, adding that he urged foreign ministries around the world to “take a clear position on these measures so that the occupying power realizes that it is not completely free to act as it pleases.”

For some critics, the Israeli measures, and the PA’s response, have only cemented the viewpoint of much of the Palestinian public towards their own government: that the PA has no real power or sovereignty in the land that it’s supposed to govern. 

“What this shows is how the PA is totally hostage to the Israelis,” Abdel Razek told Mondoweiss. “The PA is in a cage, and Israel decides when to throw peanuts – in the form of permits, for example – in order to keep them in line. In order to survive and to function, the PA is completely subservient to the Israelis.”

Abofoul echoed similar sentiments, saying, “when it comes to the PA wanting to exercise any form of sovereign rights, it cannot because it doesn’t have any control.”

“Palestinians don’t have an independent economy, they don’t even have their own currency. Everything goes through Israel. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Israel can withhold such money, or enact such measures,” he said. 

Answering the question of how and why Israel is able to, without any pushback, exert such control over the PA’s finances and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues, which make up more than 60% of the PA’s budget, Abdel Razek pointed to one major thorn in the side of the Palestinians: the Oslo Accords. 

Signed in 1993, the Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority as an interim government, with limited autonomy and self-governance powers in a small minority of the West Bank. The PA was intended as an interim government, meant to dissolve after five years, upon the end of permanent status negotiations. 

But when a comprehensive peace agreement was never reached, the PA, and the Oslo Accords, remained in place, creating a reality in the occupied Palestinian territory in which the Palestinian government was, at the end of the day, beholden to Israel in almost every aspect of governance. 

“The Oslo Accords were supposed to be temporary,” Abdel Razek said. “What has happened instead, is that the framework stayed in place, and Israel has used it to cement apartheid, fragmentation, and maintain full control over the Palestinians, and the PA.”

Abdel Razek described the Oslo Accords as a “trap” that the PA and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have “dug themselves further into.

“It’s created a situation where Israel has full control over the people, the economy, the land, and the PA  needs Israeli approval for any decision regarding imports, electricity or water for instance. The general public might think that the PA is in control within the West Bank, but they are not,” she continued. 

“The Palestinian people have been asking to be let out of this trap for decades. It’s high time the PA leadership should confront that reality, but they are not.”

Culture of impunity

The punitive measures announced by Israel came just days after Netanyahu swore in his new government — the most right-wing in Israel’s history. Around the same time, Ben-Gvir was announcing a series of policies targeting Palestinians, including a ban on the Palestinian flag, and directives for the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) to ensure Palestinian prisoners’ living conditions are not improved. 

The brazen attacks of the new government aimed at both the Palestinian government and the Palestinian people, millions of whom are living under military occupation — the same occupation the ICJ has been asked to issue a ruling on — have been met with relative silence from the international community and third UN member states.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and his new government have received warm welcomes and congratulatory messages from the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, along with US President Joe Biden, who “underscored his unwavering support for Israeli security.”

The global acceptance of Netanyahu’s extremist government, and its unilateral attacks on the Palestinians, are part of what experts like Abofoul and Abdel Razek described as a “culture of impunity” that has allowed Israel to act the way it does both regionally and on the international stage. 

“The silence of Western states seems to implicitly give the Israeli government, as it did with other Israeli governments, the OK to do whatever they want,” Abofoul said. “The missing piece of this puzzle is accountability.”

“If Israeli governments won’t face consequences for their actions, they will continue,” Abofoul said, adding that the fact that Netanyahu’s government enacted such measures in response to the PA seeking accountability from the ICJ through legitimate international legal mechanisms, shows that Israel “doesn’t want to solve anything in a  civilized way.”

“This Israeli government doesn’t believe in a political solution. It wants to annex the West Bank, build more settlements, etc. But then you don’t see any word of condemnation from any third states.”

Both Abofoul and Abdel Razek warned that if Israel is allowed to continue to operate in such a manner, with little to no international accountability, the situation for Palestinians on the ground will continue to worsen, and will continue to push Palestinians toward further confrontation with the occupation, which more often than not, yields deadly results for Palestinians. 

“The Palestinian society wants confrontation and resistance to the occupation, injustice, and colonialism,” Abdel Razek said. 

“People who engage in armed resistance are accused of being terrorists. And when Palestinians seek justice and accountability through the international system, they are also punished or accused of being antisemitic. Our struggle for liberation is being delegitimized, and the international political establishment is blocking all avenues we have tried,” she said. 

“The Israeli government, like several successive Israeli governments, have been sending signals to the Palestinian people, to the youth in particular, that there is no political prospect of a peaceful resolution,” Abofoul said. 

“This raises the feeling of desperation among Palestinian youth and results in more violence. Because there is no hope. Israel is responsible for this violence, and I’m afraid that such Israeli apartheid policies and practices will lead to more violence, in which the Palestinian civilians will pay the highest price.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss