On Wednesday, the day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic speech to the U.S. Congress, the Palestinians will try to remind the international community that there’s an issue on the Mideast agenda besides Iran’s nuclear program.
The Fatah Central Committee will meet in Ramallah to authorize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make crucial decisions for the West Bank. Barring any last-minute changes, Abbas will be allowed to announce steps to return to Israel civilian powers now in the hands of the PA. He will also be allowed to reduce security cooperation with Israel, or stop it entirely.
The central committee’s decisions, other than being a desperate attempt to draw international attention back to the Palestinians, will reflect a further deterioration in relations between Israel and the PA.
According to reports in the Arab media, the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries are pressuring Abbas not to take extreme steps before the Israeli election. They seem to assume that any hard-line declaration before March 17 will serve Netanyahu and shrink the already small chance that the Israeli left will win the election and form the next government.
Abbas’ original plan was to join the International Criminal Court on April 1, when the 60-day waiting period for joining is over. But Abbas seems to have realized, belatedly, that once the application has been made, others can submit complaints about events in the West Bank. A prosecutor has said she will investigate any complaint and begin with a preliminary examination of events since June, when three Israeli teens were abducted and murdered in Gush Etzion.
A complaint to the ICC has to go through a number of phases and can take years. But the prosecution in The Hague has its own considerations, including the need to prove that it is not only prosecuting African war criminals.
Either way, the main Palestinian ammunition has already been fired and cost the PA dearly in a number of ways. The freezing of tax money, which will not start flowing again until sometime after the Israeli election, deprives the PA of almost half a billion shekels ($126 million) a month.
Meanwhile, following Israeli pressure, Congress has halted economic aid of $440 million to the PA in the current fiscal year. In recent days, for the first time, the Israel Electric Corporation halted power for an hour in the Nablus and Jenin area – a threat due to the ballooning Palestinian electricity debt of around 2 billion shekels.
Also, a New York court has required the PA to compensate American families who were victims of terrorism during the second intifada. This $218.5 million decision makes the PA’s economic woes even worse.
True, the PA is expected to appeal, and in any case the money will be difficult to collect, but for Abbas it’s another danger nonetheless. So he’s asking the Saudis for contributions that will let the PA keep its head above water and pay salaries of its employees.
Israeli intelligence does not believe Abbas wants a violent clash. Abbas took steps to keep things in check during the summer war in Gaza despite the anger among Palestinians.
But Abbas is worried about a “normalization” of the occupation and stresses that the status quo in the West Bank is intolerable. As a result, he’s blaming Israel for various crises in West Bank cities and talking about limiting security cooperation with Israel.
Forecast for 2015
Military intelligence has warned that there could be outbreaks of violence in 2015 due to instability in the West Bank. It could happen because of a religious incident in Jerusalem, deaths of Palestinians in Israeli prisons or the death of a child, the way Mohammed al-Dura’s death fanned the flames of the second intifada. The forces trying to restrain such outbreaks might not be as strong as they once were.
In light of these predictions, Central Command is completing preparations for possible clashes in the West Bank beginning at the end of March. In recent days, for example, a reserve battalion has drilled the occupation of a Palestinian village. The training was not for mass demonstrations, but to deal with armed Palestinian units, which would require the taking over of suburbs and villages.
Intelligence gathering is also being improved, as is protection of settlements and roads serving Israelis in the West Bank.
Central Command notes an uptick in terror attacks since the summer; Gazans’ deaths during the war no doubt sharpened national awareness in the West Bank and the desire for revenge. The knife-wielder from Tul Karm who attacked passengers on a Tel Aviv bus last month said he wanted to avenge the deaths in Gaza.
Most units uncovered by the army and Shin Bet security service are not backed by a terror group, but there has also been an increase in operations by Hamas military units. Last week the Shin Bet said it had arrested the members of a Hamas cell in Hebron that had planned suicide and other attacks.
In the Gaza Strip, the economic situation is immeasurably worse than in the West Bank, but it seems Hamas does not want a military confrontation. Hamas’ military wing is busy replenishing its rocket arsenal, which was depleted during the war, and has been stopped by Egypt from smuggling in weapons from Iran. Hamas’ main concern is the economy; international aid promises have not been fulfilled and hardly any reconstruction has taken place.
The PA has refused to take partial responsibility for border crossings with Israel and Egypt, which would lighten the closure on Gaza, because it does not believe that Hamas will share real authority over Gaza. Almost nothing has come of the great reconciliation of last April.
The rampant despair in the Strip can also be seen in the rising numbers of young Palestinians trying to cross the border fence into Israel. Some hope to find work, others just want to be locked up in an Israeli prison, where they believe things will be better.
Some have taken to attempting to cross with a grenade or a knife; if they’re caught without a weapon they’re sent back after questioning. But anyone considered a terrorist is tried and jailed — which means years of hot meals.
Gaza, the West Bank, the northern border with Syria and Lebanon — the risk is decent that one of these fronts will escalate between the election and the summer, without even mentioning the Iranian nuclear program. There is no immediate threat of war, but it’s clear the relative security stability typical of most of Netanyahu’s years in office has disappeared.