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Abbas Declares Palestinians’ West Bank Security Commitments Null and Void

2020-05-20 07:48:24

JERUSALEM — Raising the stakes over Israel’s drive to annex land the Palestinians have long claimed, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday angrily declared it free of its commitments under the Oslo peace process, including security understandings that have protected Israelis and preserved the authority’s political hold over the occupied West Bank.

For a change, several senior Palestinian officials insisted, Mr. Abbas was not making a mere threat.

“The Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are absolved, as of today, of all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments,” Mr. Abbas declared in a speech in Ramallah after a much-anticipated meeting of officials of the authority, the P.L.O. and Fatah, the political faction that dominates them both. Those understandings, he said, include all security agreements.

Mr. Abbas said his move was a response to the new Israeli government’s push to annex large portions of the West Bank.

With peace talks nonexistent for years, many right-wing Israelis have urged Mr. Netanyahu to extend sovereignty over the West Bank on ideological and religious grounds, believing the Jewish state should control the entire Holy Land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Evangelical Christians who are key supporters of President Trump have backed the effort.

Supporters of an eventual two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, have warned that annexation could render a future Palestinian state impossible to achieve. In the short term, they say, it could incite violence that, whether the Palestinian security forces try to suppress it or not, would quickly lead to the authority’s disintegration.

That, they argue, would force the Israeli Army to do what it has little appetite to do: resume day-to-day control over every aspect of the lives of the more than two million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned for right-wing support on a promise to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements totaling about 30 percent of the territory.

The new alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, a former army chief, had campaigned for center-left votes on a promise to oppose unilateral annexation. But in his coalition agreement with Mr. Netanyahu, which gave Mr. Gantz a veto over nearly every major decision confronting their new government, one exception was carved out: annexation.

In his speech, Mr. Abbas referred directly both to the coalition agreement and to Mr. Netanyahu’s inaugural address on Sunday, which he said “did not include anything about commitment to the signed agreements” but did repeat Mr. Netanyahu’s intention to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank.

By making annexation a priority, Mr. Abbas argued, Israel had “annulled the Oslo agreement” and the ensuing pacts that built upon it.

The speech by Mr. Abbas, who is in his 80s and in frail health, was especially animated, but it did not set out a timetable or mechanisms for withdrawing from the agreements. It also did not explain how the Palestinian Authority would function without relying on agreements that support its existence.

The authority’s finances are enormously dependent on coordination with Israel, which collects hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes on its behalf every month. Those funds usually make up more than half of the authority’s budget.

Its day-to-day operations also rely heavily on coordination with Israeli officials, which is based on the many agreements between Israel and the P.L.O.

When the authority’s police want to transfer a prisoner from Hebron to Jericho, they do so in coordination with Israel. When the authority wants to arrange for the importation of 3G telecommunications equipment into the West Bank, it does so in coordination with Israel. And when Mr. Abbas travels abroad, as he often does, he does so in coordination with Israel.

Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have frequently threatened to halt security coordination with Israel in recent years, but they have done little to bring such a move to fruition.

When a major dispute erupted in late 2017 over Israel placing metal detectors at entrances to the Temple Mount, Mr. Abbas announced that security coordination with Israel had been halted. But significant parts of it actually remained in place, and once the dispute had been resolved, Hazem Atallah, the head of the Palestinian Authority police, acknowledged to reporters that 90 to 95 percent of the force’s coordination with Israel had been unaffected.

And shortly after President Trump’s decision to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the Palestinians cut off contact with the White House and other parts of the American administration.

But they continued to work with the Central Intelligence Agency, a decision that Mr. Abbas attributed to the Palestinian Authority’s determination to fight terrorism. In his speech Tuesday night, Mr. Abbas reiterated what he called “our firm commitment to fighting international terrorism regardless of its shape or source.”

Several Palestinian officials interviewed late Tuesday and early Wednesday said that this time, Mr. Abbas was not just talking.

“This decision is for immediate implementation,” said Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the P.L.O.’s executive committee. “It is not to be studied or discussed in committees.”

And Maj. Gen. Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security services, said that those agencies’ chiefs had attended the Ramallah meeting and understood that they were to stop all security cooperation with both Israel and the C.I.A.

“The Palestinian leadership has always left the decision of cutting all ties with Israel and the U.S. up to the president,” said Mahmoud al-Habbash, Mr. Abbas’s religious affairs adviser. “He has now made that decision, and there’s no room for maneuvering.”

But Mr. al-Habbash left room for some ambiguity. Asked if the police would continue to check with Israel before driving through Israeli-controlled West Bank territory, to avoid potential clashes, he said only, “We will continue to do our work and serve our people.”

Others acknowledged that the move put the authority at risk.

“The cost of making this decision is very high, but the cost of coexisting with annexation is extraordinarily higher,” said Ahmad Majdalani, the authority’s social development minister and a P.L.O. executive committee member. “We will not be bystanders while Israel takes over our homeland.”

Still, Mr. Majdalani indicated what he clearly hoped would be the result.

“If Israel announces that it will not move toward annexation, we will be ready to enter a dialogue, on that very day, to discuss all issues,” he said.

“Right now it’s on paper,” she wrote. “For all of those asking how serious they are in their intention to implement — we should wait a few days and we will know. It will be difficult to miss an event like the halt of security coordination.”

David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem and Adam Rasgon from Tel Aviv. Mohammed Najib contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.


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