It is highly unusual for the Palestinian president to repeat a statement made by the prime minister, but that is what happened when President Mahmoud Abbas used his relatively new Twitter account to echo in Arabic a statement made in English by Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh to the New York Times.
In an interview with David M. Halbfinger published June 5, Shtayyeh explained that if Israel continues to withhold tax monies it collects on his government's behalf, it could necessitate laying off members of the Palestinian security services. Should that happen, Shtayyeh said, it will be a “very hot summer. At every level.”
Shtayyeh spokesman Ibrahim Milhem told Al-Monitor that the issue is not limited to the furloughing of security forces staff. “What the prime minister was talking about is that the effect of the financial crisis will affect the entirety of Palestinian life,” Milhem explained. “If members of the security forces are let go, that means that the economy will suffer because there will be less salary-earning citizens feeding the economy, which is already in a difficult situation due to US cuts for various projects, including UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], hospitals, security and infrastructure projects.”
While much of the focus has been on Shtayyeh's warning in terms of security service employees, reliable sources told Al-Monitor that it is unlikely the security forces will be significantly affected. A former government minister who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the most likely scenario is not one of having to fire security officers, but imposing a moratorium on new hiring and accelerating the retirement process of older service members.
“It is not a safe situation for the Palestinian government to have hundreds of disgruntled security officers unemployed and in the streets,” the source said.
Shtayyeh's warning is being taken seriously, causing panic in Israeli circles. Palestinian officials have consistently rejected the truncated funds from Israel, including derailing an Israeli attempt to unilaterally deliver them to the Palestinian government's Ramallah account on June 4 by refusing to accept them. The Israelis created the current crisis by insisting on reducing the Palestinian tax transfers by an arbitrary amount that they claim is equivalent to what the Palestinian government pays to families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and Palestinians killed by the Israelis.
The Palestinian security sector currently employees 83,276 people on the West Bank and in Gaza, including 312 brigadier generals. It has been reported that the sector accounts for almost $1 billion of the overall state budget.
Security coordination between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, a linchpin of the Oslo Accords, has been viewed as an achievement on the part of Israel. Many in Israel see such cooperation as keeping things safe and sound on the West Bank, including for the settlement enterprise. Some also claim that it is keeping the Palestinian president alive and free to travel.
Earlier this year, the Palestinian security services had suffered another funding cut, when on Jan. 31 the US Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (2018) became enforceable. As a result, the Palestinian government stopped accepting money from Washington for fear of possible prosecution.
The day after the law took effect, PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said, “We do not want to receive any money if it will cause us to appear before courts.” Under the new law, any government that receives funding from the United States could be subject to US counter-terrorism laws. The Palestinian security forces had previously received some $60 million annually from the Untied States.
While successive Palestinian institutions, including the Palestinian Central Council and the Palestine National Council (PNC), have called for an end, or at least a suspension, of security coordination with Israel, Abbas, as commander in chief of Palestinian security forces, has refused to alter the relationship. His echoing of Shtayyeh’s statement might suggest that he is now moving toward bringing coordination to an end.
Palestinian officials are sending loud and clear signals that if indeed this summer proves to be a “hot” one politically, economically and security-wise, they will not have much of a desire to help cool things down. The issue now is whether Israel and the United States will take the concrete steps necessary to ensure that the summer doesn’t get very hot.