Ending security pact with Israel could provide leverage for Abbas

The Palestinian Authority has cooperated with the Israeli government on security in the West Bank since the mid-1990s, but many see it as an unfair arrangement.

A Palestinian man takes part in a demonstration in the West Bank town of Abu Dis on March 6, 2015 against Palestinian land confiscation, as Israeli secrity forces stand guard. Abbas Momani/AFP Photo
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ABU DHABI // Palestinian leaders in the West Bank calling for a halt to security cooperation with Israel provides president Mahmoud Abbas with additional leverage for negotiations, but also risks bringing greater suffering to the occupied territory.

The Palestinian Authority’s agreement with Israel on intelligence sharing, coordinating arrests, and containing demonstrations dates back to the Oslo peace accords of the mid-1990s.

It is widely credited with maintaining order in the West Bank and preventing attacks in Israel. But the pact is seen by many Palestinians as an unfair agreement in which the territory is policing itself to the benefit of Israel.

While some say the agreement has helped Mr Abbas suppress the activities of his political rival, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, the PA has had to shoulder the financial burden of the policing, while also facing the political and ideological backlash of working with Israel.

The call to end all this came on Thursday during a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) — a senior body within the Palestine Liberation Organisation — with the council saying it was in response to Israel breaching bilateral agreements, including the withholding of US$127 million (Dh466.5) of monthly tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. The tax money covers around two-thirds of the Palestinian budget and is used to pay tens of thousands of public sector employees.

It is not yet clear when Mr Abbas will implement the resolution, but PCC member Bassm Al Salhe said on Thursday that it would be put into effect. In the meantime, the council’s decision still carries political benefits, according to Rami Khouri, a Middle East expert at the American University of Beirut.

“My guess is that Abbas will use the resolution as a source of leverage to negotiate with Israel, including over the major issue of settlement expansion,” he said.

Exactly how much leverage it gives the Palestinians may depend on how the security situation evolves. Israelis are no doubt shaken following an attack in East Jerusalem on Friday, when a Palestinian man rammed his car into a group of Israeli pedestrians.

Negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments are also often reflective of what's going on in Israel's political scene, and with general elections scheduled for March 17, prime minister Benjamin Netanyhau and his opponents will be keen to show that security is their utmost concern.

It is thought that an end to security cooperation with Israel could have an immediate effect on stability in West Bank cities that are flashpoints for violence, such as Hebron, Nablus and Jenin. But Mr Khouri says an increase in attacks on Israelis is not a given. Not only could a rise in attacks on Palestinians be a consequence, he says, but the PA has a great interest in maintaining peace, security and calm in the West Bank. One outcome would be that they continue to police the territory — albeit alone.

But if the PA fails in maintaining calm, Israel will likely clamp down even harder on the West Bank.

“If cooperation ends and Israel fears any new threats, it will probably clamp down on the Palestinians with harsh security measures, such as curfews, travel limits and road blocks,” he said.

Another possible outcome of an end to security cooperation — and one that some experts are seriously considering — is the collapse of the PA altogether.

This would result in Israel taking responsibility for running the West Bank, including running schools, transport and hospitals.

While in reality this would likely make the lives of Palestinians more difficult on a day-to-day basis, ideologically, at least, it is an outcome that is supported by many who say Israel should shoulder the administrative and financial burden of running the territory if it continues to be an occupying force.

“The main takeaway [from the decision to halt security cooperation] is that no population will acquiesce its own subjugation and dehumanisation and take the burden for it,” Mr Khouri said. “The Palestinians have reached breaking point.”