The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Palestinian leader cuts ties with Israel over annexation plans. His own people feel the pinch.

Israel’s controversial concrete barrier is seen in January between the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov, in the foreground, in the northern part of East Jerusalem and the Palestinian area of Al-Ram in the occupied West Bank, in the background. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

AL-RAM, WEST BANK — Nassar Salem, a carpenter in this Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, handed over the form that would normally be enough to get a permit for his pregnant daughter-in-law to visit a hospital on the other side of the Israeli military checkpoint.

But at a crowded storefront where clerks had been brushing aside similar requests all morning, Salem was told that Palestinian officials were no longer accepting applications.

“I’m sorry, you can’t get this processed now,” said a woman behind the counter. “All cooperation with Israel has stopped.”

Earlier this month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared an end to long-standing coordination between his governing Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials in response to the Israeli government’s plans to start the process of annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank as soon as July 1.

As Palestinians returned to work this week after a long holiday break, they were already beginning to feel the effects of the freeze.

Some permits could still be obtained if applicants directly visited the Israeli civil administration office in the West Bank, people were told. Others, including for emergency transport by ambulance, would be impossible without the involvement of Palestinian officials.

“People’s daily lives are being put on hold,” said Murad Shawamreh as he turned away customers from the business where he helps applicants fill out and file the forms they need to enter Israel.

The refusal to process permits at either of the main Palestinian offices that handle these travel requests was among the first concrete signs that Abbas was following through, at least for now, on his threat to suspend ties. These links date back to agreements the Palestinians signed with Israel and the United States after the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s.

The suspension of cooperation, designed to pressure Israel and galvanize international opposition to its annexation plans, could further squeeze Palestinians already suffering the economic effects of the coronavirus shutdown. As the public health lockdown begins to lift, unemployment in the West Bank has soared to 35 percent according to some estimates. More than 300,000 workers have lost their wages, many of them dependent on jobs in construction and health care in Israel.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planning to bring annexation proposals up for government approval in July, officials on both sides are bracing for a summer of potential confrontations. Economic stress combined with anger could bring protesters into the streets and spur radical groups toward violence. The Israeli military plans to conduct war game exercises next week on various conflict scenarios.

“Annexation could be the tipping point where nobody will have any control,” warned Mohammad Mustafa, an economic adviser to Abbas.

The West Bank has enjoyed a decade of relative stability, in part thanks to employment, trade and security ties with Israel. Salaries paid to Palestinian workers in Israel, topping $280 million a month by some estimates, make up one of the West Bank’s largest sources of income. Taxes and customs on imports collected by Israel and transferred to the Palestinian Authority account for 60 percent of its tax revenue.

Israel, for its part, relies heavily on more than 120,000 Palestinian workers who, before the coronavirus lockdown, crossed the checkpoints for jobs across the Israeli economy. Sixty percent of them work in construction. No immediate disruption is anticipated because most permits are valid for months.

Israeli-Palestinian cooperation also includes high-level contacts between intelligence agencies, which have thwarted terrorist attacks in Israel and protected the Palestinian Authority from its extremist rivals.

There isn’t clear evidence that Abbas has made good on his promise to sever classified intelligence ties. One former Israeli official, speaking off the record, said communications had paused but there hadn’t been a crisis yet to test whether Palestinians were serious about breaking off links.

Nor is it clear whether non-security ties have been totally cut, but there is no doubt they have been scaled back. On Wednesday, people who had been waiting for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday to file their travel applications found themselves caught up in the standoff. Outside the Palestinian civil affairs office, many complained that making it harder for them to see doctors or visit family was not a welcome change.

“We have done this many times, but now we cannot even apply,” said a young man who came to secure a permit for his diabetic mother to visit an Israeli eye clinic. He declined to give his name out of fear of offending Palestinian and Israeli authorities. “We will have to find treatment for her here.”

Salem, whose daughter-in-law has a June appointment at an East Jerusalem hospital for complications with her pregnancy, said he would seek permission directly from Israeli authorities. He doubted that ending cooperation would deter Israel’s annexation plans.

“Israel is going to do what it is going to do, whether Abbas approves or not,” Salem said, walking away with his unfiled documents. “This is all irrelevant.”

Raeed Lawzy, the head of the Palestinian permitting office in Al-Ram, would not discuss the details of the Palestinian government’s plans to suspend cooperation. He did confirm that his staff was no longer processing applications.

“We have had no connections with the Israelis whatsoever,” Lawzy said.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli unit that oversees civil coordination with the Palestinian Authority, declined a request for comment.

Abbas has threatened to cut ties with Israel before, only to backtrack, which caused some skepticism that he was in earnest this time. In the days since his announcement, Palestinians looked for evidence that coordination had been indeed been suspended, sharing notes on social media.

They found some aspects of the system working normally. Workers heading to jobs in Israel posted pictures of themselves on Twitter as they transited normally through Israeli military checkpoints. Others shared photographs of Palestinian police stations staffed as usual in Israeli-controlled areas like Al-Ram, Abu Dis and other Jerusalem suburbs where Palestinian forces help Israel with security.

Israeli police said cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts remained unchanged.

“There is full coordination between the Israeli police stationed in Judea and Samaria and their Palestinian counterparts in Ramallah,” said Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, using the Israeli name for the West Bank. “Drug, traffic violations and other criminal investigations continue to be in place.”

Despite his obvious anger at Israel’s annexation plans, Abbas continues to depend on cooperation with Israel, as laid out in the Oslo accords, to stay in power.

“Without cooperation, there is no Oslo and without Oslo, there is no Palestinian Authority,” said Michael Milshtein, a former COGAT official and now a Palestinian affairs expert at Tel Aviv University.

Political analysts also said Abbas must be careful not to place too much of a burden on everyday Palestinians. While frustration with the growth of settlements and the possibility of annexation is widespread, polls suggests many Palestinians are more immediately concerned about their economic prospects, and making travel more difficult could increase anger at the government.

Strains are already showing, Milshtein said, noting a clash that erupted between Bethlehem residents and Palestinian security forces in the last days of Ramadan over restrictions on religious gatherings related to the pandemic lockdown.

But the Palestinians show no sign of backing down. Following a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee late Wednesday, leaders reaffirmed Abbas’s decision to renounce the agreements with Israel.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

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