Israel's security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority could deteriorate within three months due to Ramallah’s economic woes, according to intelligence sources.
The sources have warned Israeli officials of the potential for escalating tensions in the West Bank and the undermining of the PA’s status as a result of the economic crisis, the pending U.S. peace plan and Hamas’ recent “point-scoring” against Israel.
According to security assessments, the PA will struggle to govern the territories under its control, increasing the likelihood of confrontations of unpredictable intensity between West Bank Palestinians and Israeli forces.
The sources added that Israel and other countries must take steps to prevent the PA’s economic collapse. Last week Qatar said it would transfer $480 million to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a move the sources said was a temporary solution at best, calling for a broader initiative.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is frustrated by what he views as the PA’s scant reward for cooperating with Israel, intelligence officials said, in contrast to the economic concessions secured by Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the Gaza Strip.
One source said Abbas was hard-put to explain this to West Bank residents seeing the aid flowing into the Strip after a few days of combat.
The security agencies believe that Abbas, 83, who has been leading the PA for some 15 years, is concerned with establishing his legacy. He will not want to accept the peace plan expected from U.S. President Donald Trump, which is perceived as a future humiliation for the Palestinians and an undermining of their narrative.
The presentation of the initiative, which is allegedly due in the coming months, is also expected to lead to escalation in the West Bank. Based on the Israeli assessment, Abbas is prepared to conduct negotiations, but from his perspective an agreement cannot deal merely with economic peace but must also deal with core issues that will get the support of the Palestinian public, and that includes Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Other factors that were cited as possible triggers of an escalation are unilateral moves by Israel, like expanding construction in the settlements and steps like those taken before the April 9 election, like the reduction in the tax transfers to the Palestinians or the blocking of cellphone transmissions in the security wings of the prisons. The security establishment notes that these acts seriously undermine the ability of the PA to govern and put Abbas’ back to the wall.
A source in the defense establishment said recently that Israel is trying to keep the PA alive, “as if it’s force-feeding a critically ill patient.” According to this source, Israel’s moves are meant to buy time, but, “They will not be able to change the situation significantly.”
The Israel Defense Forces recently identified a Hamas attempt to exploit the situation in the PA and establish cells in the West Bank. A senior officer who addressed the issue in a closed forum said that Hamas is in total control of its people in the West Bank, but the IDF’s control of the area makes it difficult for Hamas to significantly consolidate its forces there. According to the officer, Israel’s operational and intelligence control is stymieing Hamas’ efforts to organize attacks from the planning stages.
According to army data, in 2018, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service thwarted some 820 terrorist cells in the West Bank, about half of which were identified with Hamas. The PA is also trying to fight Hamas by arresting its operatives or through its security cooperation with Israel. The PA is also preventing Islamic Jihad from opening a hospital being built in the West Bank because it does not want to allow organizations from Gaza to meet the needs of West Bank residents.
A senior IDF officer recently said in a closed forum that because of the PA’s instability, factions affiliated with it have begun to stockpile weapons; they are arming themselves for the day after Abbas because they fear for their personal security. According to this officer, the security apparatuses are still loyal to the PA and are working to continue security cooperation with Israel, which they perceive as a mutual interest.
Nevertheless, the security establishment thinks that the collapse of the PA and the nonpayment of salaries could lead the employees of the security forces to find other ways to make a living that will harm Israel and the PA, such as trading in weapons or intelligence, as well as moonlighting in other jobs.
The security establishment says that Israel is preserving the existing security situation by allowing West Bank residents to work in Israel and in the Israeli industrial zones in the territories, and by allowing Arab citizens into the PA areas to stream funds into the PA through shopping and business deals.
The PA economic crisis erupted, inter alia, because of Israel’s decision to offset from the taxes it collects and then transfers to the PA a sum equal to what the PA pays its security prisoners and their families. The PA, meanwhile, is refusing to accept the tax transfers Israel is willing to make, even though these transfers make up 65 percent of the PA budget. As a result, more than 160,000 PA employees have gotten only half their salaries the past two months. Now more than 90 percent of West Bank residents are having difficulty repaying their debts, which Palestinian and World Bank estimates put at $2.8 billion.
The World Bank last month issued a report on the Palestinian economy, which stated that unemployment on the West Bank has gone up to 31 percent and the dispute over the tax transfers is likely to drive up the PA’s debts from $400 million to $1 billion. Moreover, more than half of the shops in the West Bank reported on a drop in sales before Ramadan, which began last week, and several leading companies have lost 80 percent of their value on the Nablus stock exchange. The halting of aid last year by American agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development has also affected the Palestinian situation, particularly during Ramadan.
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