Why 2019 could be the worst year yet for the Palestinians
If 2018 was a particularly bad year for Palestinians — with a series of unilateral US decisions that included revising the status of occupied Jerusalem, affecting the provision of essential services by UNRWA to Palestinian refugees, the suspension of political contacts between Ramallah and Washington, the closure of the PLO mission in the US capital, and a decreasing flow of US aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) — then this year promises to be even worse on all levels.
Last week, the US halted the last bit of American aid to the PA, including a $60 million installment to Palestinian security forces. Israel fears this will affect bilateral intelligence coordination and reflect negatively on the state of relative calm in the occupied West Bank. The decision to stop all forms of US aid was made at the behest of the PA for fear that the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last year and which came into effect last week, will make it and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) liable before US courts.
ATCA allows American citizens to sue countries and entities receiving foreign aid from Washington in US courts over alleged complicity in “acts of war.” The Palestinians fear that the law will encourage possible US victims of “terrorist” acts to sue the PA and the PLO for financial damages. Secretary General of the PLO, Saeb Erekat, pointed out last week that there were currently cases against three banks operating in the Palestinian Territories before US courts.
Last August, Trump directed the State Department to withdraw $200 million in aid that was originally planned for programs in the West Bank and Gaza through USAID. Earlier last year, the US, which was the largest donor to UNRWA, giving $360 million in 2017, ended all funding for the UN agency. The US has also stopped financing scholarships for Palestinian students. All of this is aimed at putting pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to resume political contacts with Washington. Abbas suspended such contacts following the White House’s decision in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate the US embassy there.
Ironically, while Israel had lauded all of Trump’s punitive measures against the Palestinians, it is now calling on the US to find ways to restore funding for Palestinian security. Despite decisions last year by the Palestine National Council (PNC) and Palestine Central Committee (PCC) calling on Abbas to suspend security coordination with Israel, the Palestinian president hesitated to do so. Now it is unclear what future awaits the high-level security coordination that serves both sides as they work to undermine the influence of one common enemy — Hamas.
There is no way the EU and other donor countries can step in to replace the lost US funding, at least not in the short run.
The suspension of US aid will be felt by the PA and a majority of Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip. Between 2012 and 2017, the US provided more than $1.7 billion in bilateral development and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in the areas of democracy and governance, education, health, private enterprise, security assistance, water and sanitation, and infrastructure. Equally important, the EU provided an estimated $410 million in 2017, covering a wide range of areas, including humanitarian assistance, capacity building, democratic governance and socio-economic development.
There is no way that the EU and other donor countries can step in to replace the lost US funding, at least not in the short run. This year will prove particularly hard for the financially strapped PA to meet its basic obligations, like paying salaries, not to mention maintaining essential services.
Aside from the possible financial debacle, an ailing Abbas is overwhelmed by a plethora of domestic challenges. Chief among them for now is finding a formula to form a new national unity government in the wake of last week’s resignation of Rami Hamdallah’s government. So far, major factions in the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine have refused to join a new coalition government, leaving a divided Fatah movement in the political wilderness.
Failure to form a unity government will also scupper attempts to hold legislative elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem this year. Abbas, whose term as president expired a decade ago, is yet to name a successor who would be accepted by a majority of Palestinians.
Adding to his woes is the fact that all attempts to reconcile with Hamas over Gaza have failed and there are calls now to declare the Strip a “rogue entity.” But still Hamas continues to work with Egypt to implement a proposed long-term truce with Israel that will bring an end to the economic blockade and cement the de facto separation between Gaza and the West Bank.
Finally, there is the possible fallout from both the upcoming Israeli general elections and the possible unveiling of the Trump peace plan shortly afterward — two events that are unlikely to play in the Palestinians’ favor.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010