Foreign diplomats voiced the following warning to their Israeli interlocutors, who are preoccupied with the dramatic developments in the election campaign: The security cabinet’s decision to slash half-a-billion shekels ($140 million) from the taxes that Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority, combined with the growing instability in Gaza, greatly increase the possibility of a flare-up in the territories in the near future.
The security cabinet, under severe political constraints, decided after a delay of six months to implement legislation stipulating that the amount of money the PA pays to security prisoners jailed in Israel be subtracted from the funds transferred to the Palestinians. (The cut doesn’t apply to the larger sum the PA pays to the families of Palestinians killed by Israel, among them many terrorists.) The payment reduction could trigger a domino effect, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas intends to slash the funds transferred to Gaza by the same ratio.
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According to the diplomats, the PA is already in meltdown or on the verge of collapse. The succession struggles among Abbas’ potential heirs, the cut in the American funding to the UN Refugee Agency and to other groups in the territories, and the diminished support in the West Bank for Abbas’ regime are hurling the PA into a crisis. The authority is like a wounded animal trapped in a corner. Now, following the security cabinet’s decision, Israel will take a sharp stick and thrust it into the PA’s eye. The PA might die, but before that it will muster all its strength to ensure that Israel also suffers.
That’s extremely barbed, highly unusual language for diplomats, and it’s being used by people who are involved in what’s taking place between the sides. A similar analysis, perhaps lacking some of the imagery, can also be heard from senior security officials in Israel.
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The dire warning derives from the whole picture of events in the West Bank and in Gaza. Many Israelis view the payments to the prisoners as aid to terrorists convicted of murdering Israeli civilians. For the Palestinians, the prisoners aren’t only envoys of the national struggle, they’re part of a whole industry in the Palestinian economy, and serving time in Israel is work in every respect, obliging a quid pro quo. If Abbas tries to change that, he’ll risk sparking a revolt against him.
The diplomats are telling Israel: Don’t be in a rush. Wait until after the election because the cut in funds will aggravate the PA’s situation and could hasten a conflagration in Gaza, too. This week, Abbas announced that if Israel deducts the funds the PA pays the prisoners from the taxes it collects for the Palestinians, the PA will refuse to accept the rest of the tax money as well. Senior PA people say the payments to the authority officials living in the Strip will be halted already next week.
In Gaza, checks and balances have moderated the violence between Hamas and the IDF in recent months. Hamas has been letting off steam for a few weeks, allowing demonstrators to approach the border fence and clash with the army, both in Friday demonstrations and nighttime confrontations, where the violence is even worse. The prospect of significant progress in enabling a long-term cease-fire, in return for meaningful relief of the Gaza blockade, doesn’t look good. A further reduction in PA funds would heighten the economic pressure on Hamas and counter the highly useful funds from Qatar that are being used to pay government employees, help needy families and buy the fuel for power stations that has doubled the number of hours of electricity available this winter.
The foreign mediators have the impression that the negative developments are of greater concern to the Israeli military than to the civilian policy-makers – the latter, caught in a political battle, are reluctant to ease conditions in the Strip for fear of attacks from the right.
There’s no real stability in the territories at the moment. What exists is relative quiet that any chance wind could turn into a violent eruption. Hence the insistence by the new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, to hone the readiness of IDF units for the possibility of combat in Gaza. If Kochavi reaches the target date – this summer after the election and the formation of a new government – without a confrontation there, it might be considered a real achievement for him. It might also generate greater attentiveness among his superiors regarding plans for building up IDF forces.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has been in Cairo for the past two weeks. He rejected a Russian invitation to attend conciliation talks with PA and Fatah officials in Moscow. This could be the result of a veto by Egypt, which doesn’t want to lose the upper hand in organizing talks between the rival Palestinian camps, no matter how unlikely they are to progress.
In the background, Palestinian sources in Gaza cite persistent rumors that Egypt will soon release four Palestinians it arrested in the summer of 2015. The four, officers in Hamas’ maritime commando force, were arrested in a peculiar incident while traveling by bus from the Rafah crossing to Cairo Airport. Armed men took over the bus and removed the four, but Egypt hasn’t stated officially that it’s holding Hamas people, despite repeated requests by the organization’s leaders. According to reports in the Palestinian media, the four were on the way to training in Iran, and their arrest might have been the product of intelligence provided by Israel.
A release of the Hamas men from prison in Egypt would be considered an accomplishment for the organization’s leaders in the Strip. It could be an Egyptian goodwill gesture to ensure that the tension between Hamas and Israel doesn’t lurch out of control in the months ahead. And possibly it could be seen as a small chance to make progress in the case of the Israelis and the bodies of IDF soldiers held by Hamas in Gaza – nothing favorable has happened on this front for a long time.