Once again, Israel is showing everyone who the real man is here. It is busy carrying out (yet another ) robbery in broad daylight of $105 million from the Palestinians. And as usual, it is going off without a hitch.
The sum that is being stolen consists of customs duties on Palestinian imports that were collected at border crossings under Israeli control. According to the Oslo accords, this money must be transferred at the start of every month to the Palestinian Authority treasury, where it constitutes some two-thirds of the PA's revenues. The remainder is collected directly inside the West Bank.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz instructed Israeli treasury officials to freeze the transfer of the money because of the reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas. Ostensibly, the goal is to ensure that the money does not reach terrorist hands. This is not merely robbery; it is also a false pretext.
First, the Palestinian unity government has not yet been established. Second, the money is mainly earmarked for paying the salaries of PA employees. These are the same employees who received their salaries when Fatah and Hamas were still publicly cursing each other.
Steinitz's order follows warnings against the reconciliation agreement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. I won't say those warnings constituted "blatant intervention" in another people's internal affairs, because what is Israeli domination of the Palestinian people if not blatant intervention, to put it mildly?
The sum of $105 million is peanuts compared to the value of the lands that Israel has stolen, and continues to steal, from the Palestinians. It is nothing compared to the economic and social damage that Israel causes by its policy of restricting freedom of movement. But confiscating this sum does create a series of immediate problems.
The PA, for all the talk about its institutions' preparedness for statehood, suffers from chronic financial crisis and is dependent on donations and charity in order to survive from year to year. Those who marvel at the prosperity in Ramallah ignore the fact that it is artificial, stemming mainly from international assistance. Owing to Israel's policy of closure and separation and its control over more than 60 percent of the area of the West Bank, the occupied Palestinian economy cannot increase its revenues from independent productive activity.
The head of the Ramallah government, Salam Fayyad, has decided that instead of paying only part of the salaries, he will wait until the entire confiscated sum is released - or for a miracle - in order to pay all of them. Now, at the end of the second week of May, 151,000 employees in the Palestinian public sector still do not know when their salaries will arrive in their bank accounts (a total of NIS 527 million ). Another NIS 193 million has not reached some 100,000 people who get monthly stipends (families of prisoners, families of the fallen, welfare recipients ).
With the PA's encouragement, tens of thousands of families have in recent years taken out bank loans to buy apartments. True, the Palestinian Monetary Authority has instructed the banks not to fine those who can't make their payments this month, but even without a fine, these families will find themselves with checks that bounce and accounts in overdraft.
Moreover, even when paid on time, PA salaries (NIS 2,000 for a teacher, for example, or NIS 3,400 for a department head in a government office ) have not kept up with the cost of living. Thus more families will now have to give up basic expenditures such as travel, medical care, cultural events and so forth.
We have been here before. As usual, the freeze has led to a rebuke from the UN secretary general, pleading from Quartet envoy Tony Blair and a statement that the move was premature on the part of the U.S. State Department. It would have been better if they had kept quiet.
We all know that the robber will not be punished. The robber will even get encouragement in the form of an emergency budget for the PA, put together by the United States and Europe. That budget will then enable them to make even more political demands of the Palestinians.