Abbas Likens Israel to “Gangster” over Withheld PA Taxes

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PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian leadership at the opening of a two-day conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the future of the PA, on March 4, 2015. AFP/Abbas Momani

Published Thursday, March 5, 2015

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of "gangsterism" on Wednesday over its decision to withhold the transfer of more than $100 million a month in tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians' behalf.

Opening a two-day meeting of senior Palestinian officials, when overall ties with Israel and the possibility of suspending security coordination with the Israelis will be discussed, Abbas described the tax move as a provocation.

"How are they allowed to take away our money? Are we dealing with a state or with a gangster?" he asked a gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organization's central council, its second-highest decision-making body.

Israel announced in January it was halting transfers, saying it was in retaliation for a Palestinian decision to sign up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where it plans to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

On Tuesday, Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the executive committee of the PLO, said Palestinians will lodge their first complaint against Israel for war crimes at the ICC on April 1.

On January 2, the Palestinians moved to formally join the Hague-based court in a process which is due to take effect on April 1, setting the scene for potential legal action against Israeli officials for war crimes.

On January 16, the ICC announced "a preliminary examination" into Israel's actions over a period beginning in June which included last year's aggression on Gaza.

For 51 days this summer, Israel pounded the Gaza Strip by air, land and sea. The Israeli offensive ended on August 26 with an Egypt-brokered ceasefire deal.

More than 2,310 Gazans, 70 percent of them civilians, were killed and 10,626 injured during unrelenting Israeli attacks on the besieged strip this summer.

The Palestinians are also planning to sue Israel over its policy of settlement building on land they want for a future state.

More than 600,000 Israeli settlers, soaring from 189,000 in 1989, live in settlements across the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law.

Meanwhile, it is not the first time the payments, covering around two-thirds of the Palestinian budget, have been suspended, but in the past they had usually withheld for a few weeks. This time, the policy is unlikely to change until well after Israel's March 17 election, once a new government is in place.

Already many of the PA's 140,000 civil servants have had their pay cut by around 40 percent, and there have been bouts of unrest in Ramallah, Bethlehem and other West Bank cities.

Security coordination with Israel, a critical agreement dating back to the Oslo peace accords of the mid-1990s, may end up suspended simply because police and other personnel cannot be paid, Palestinian officials have said.

"How are we going to pay the salaries?" asked Abbas, adding that as well as the tax revenues, Israel owed 1.8 billion shekels ($450 million) in unpaid salaries to Palestinians working for businesses in Israel.

Relations between the two sides have grown dangerously brittle since the collapse of US-brokered peace talks in 2014.

If a decision is taken to suspend security coordination, it would have an immediate impact in occupied West Bank cities such as Hebron, Nablus and Jenin, where anti-occupation demonstrations are common.

As well as not transferring the tax income, Israel's state-owned electricity company has cut power to Nablus and Jenin in the past 10 days to press for payment of $492 million it says is owed by the Palestinian government.

Earlier this week, the Israeli military mobilized 13,000 troops in the West Bank in a surprise drill, a reflection of the rising security concerns.

While some members of the PLO are determined to suspend security coordination immediately, the more likely outcome is a partial suspension or an increase in the threat to do so.

The roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict date back to 1917, when the British government, in the now-infamous Balfour Declaration, called for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

In 1948, with the end of the mandate, a new state — Israel — was declared inside historical Palestine.

As a result, some 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes, or were forcibly expelled, while hundreds of Palestinian villages and cities were razed to the ground by invading Zionist forces.

The Palestinian diaspora has since become one of the largest in the world. Palestinian refugees are currently spread across the region and in other countries, while many have settled in refugee camps in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel then occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the holy city in 1980, claiming it as the capital of the Zionist state — a move never recognized by the international community.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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