The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel halted annexation plans, but Palestinians are not ready to restore ties

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts after he was hit by Israeli soldiers during a protest against Jewish settlements on Aug. 28, in Haris near Salfit in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — When Palestinians cut off long-standing security, financial and civil ties with their Israeli counterparts in May, they pledged not to resume them until Israel gave up its plans to unilaterally annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The end of that threat — for the foreseeable future, anyway — could have counted as a rare victory for the beleaguered and aging Palestinian leadership.

But when annexation plans were halted as part of a diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, Palestinian leaders did not celebrate. Instead, they condemned the Persian Gulf sheikhdom for normalizing relations with Israel. Weeks later, they still will not restart cooperation, rebuffing European and Arab allies that pushed them to end a policy that seemed to be hurting everyday Palestinians more than Israel.

Among the effects of the policy, public coffers are being drained and civil servants are on half pay because the Palestinian Authority refuses to accept tax and customs payments from Israel. More than 25,000 babies born in the West Bank have not been registered by Israeli civil authorities, making them ineligible for ID numbers and passports. In some cases, families returning from medical treatment in Jordan have been turned back for carrying an undocumented infant.

For Palestinians who cannot apply directly to Israeli civil agencies, particularly those living in the Gaza Strip, obtaining work and travel permits has been out of reach, even for patients in need of urgent medical treatment.

Despite the hardships, Palestinian leaders say they will not resume the cooperative programs because annexation is still a threat.

Despite assurances from President Trump that the annexation plan is “off the table” and insistence by the UAE that reviving annexation would kill the diplomatic deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told his right-wing supporters that he could still bring it back. Many analysts say the prime minister is only appeasing his base with those assertions, but Palestinian leaders say they take Netanyahu at his word.

“He has not said he is giving it up; he says he is delaying it,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official and former chief negotiator.

Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat said the strain on Palestinians is a price they are willing to pay to keep pressure on Israel.

“The question today is not about hardship for Palestinians,” Erekat said. “We have had hardship all our lives. We need to finish this. We need our independence. We need our freedom.”

The unbending posture reflects the Palestinians’ isolation two weeks after the UAE deal shattered an Arab consensus not to thaw relations with Israel without winning major concessions first. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 84, facing the possibility that other Arab states would join what he calls the Emirati “betrayal,” is sticking with his 16-year strategy of rejecting any such reconciliation until he gains a Palestinian state along 1967 borders.

The response in the Arab world was far from the unified position that Palestinian leaders wanted. Bahrain, Egypt and Oman expressed support for the UAE deal. Kuwait and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf declined to join Iran and Turkey in condemning it outright.

Palestinian requests for an emergency response from the Arab League have so far produced little. The deal that headed off annexation has left the Palestinian Authority looking for support abroad and locked into a problematic policy at home.

“They are indeed stuck,” said Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. “The question is, when would be a good time to resume coordination with Israel? But I don’t think they have a consensus yet on the meaning of the deal with the Emirates.”

The system of cooperative ties dates to the 1993-95 Oslo accords and has served both parties. Israel collects taxes and import duties that account for almost two-thirds of the Palestinian Authority’s monthly revenue. Palestinian police coordinate with the Israeli military units active in the West Bank to minimize the potential for violence. Agencies on both sides process work and travel permits that allow patients to seek treatment in Israeli hospitals and tens of thousands of workers to take jobs on the Israeli side of the checkpoints.

In suspending the program three months ago, Abbas said it would force Israel to bear the burden as an occupying power, solely responsible for the policing and administrative needs of 5 million Palestinians. Hamas, the ruling militant group in Gaza that has a more combative stance toward Israel, welcomed the move.

But it has come at a cost during a time of multiple crises in the Palestinian territories. Revenue has been slashed and workers idled just as the economy was plummeting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Tensions have also flared in Gaza as militants have launched daily incendiary balloons over the security wall, causing scores of wildfires in Israel and prompting nightly retaliatory strikes by the Israeli military.

Now, both the West Bank and Gaza are suffering a worrying uptick in coronavirus cases. Cutting ties initially delayed the importation of testing supplies and protective equipment into both areas until the United Nations and aid agencies cobbled together a workaround. This is functioning now but could be strained by the worrisome appearance of new cases.

“We have a temporary mechanism in place until coordination between the [Palestinian Authority] and Israel resumes,” said Ayadil Saparbekov of the World Health Organization’s office in Jerusalem. “But the situation in Gaza is very concerning.”

As tensions have flared, Israel has cut fuel supplies to Gaza’s only internal electric plant, reducing power to just four hours a day. The lack of contact complicated efforts by intermediaries to broker a compromise.

“If there hadn’t been the breakdown, maybe those conversations would have been more productive,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the region.

The humanitarian groups are now working on a similar ad hoc system to help Palestinians get permits to enter Israel for medical treatment. There have been several media accounts of patients dying after being unable to navigate the fractured permitting system, including 22-year-old Jalal Sharafi, whose family tried in vain to get him into Israel for cancer treatment.

“We tried to contact the [Palestinian Authority], but they told us we are not allowed to work or contact the Israelis,” Nasser Sharafi, the cancer victim’s father, said in an interview. “The Israelis were delaying and insisting on making it more difficult.”

In response to questions, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli military agency known as COGAT that is in charge of permitting, said it had approved an initial permit for Jalal Sharafi that was not used. A second request was delayed by missing information, the agency said, a glitch it blamed on the collapse of formal cooperation.

COGAT “will continue to work in cooperation with the relevant offices in order to enable, even at this time, the entry of Gaza Strip residents for purposes of lifesaving medical treatment,” the agency said.

Both sides can benefit when their bureaucracies work together, said Michael Milshtein, a former COGAT official and head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University. Palestinian officials then have access to crucial revenue, and their citizens have smoother relations with Israeli institutions, he said. Israel relies on security ties to police potential threats from extremists in the West Bank.

“So far, it’s been a miracle that we have seen no terrorist attacks,” Milshtein said of the break in relations. “But I’m afraid that can change very quickly because people in the West Bank are talking about this weakening of the Palestinian Authority.”

Balousha reported from Gaza City.