Netanyahu vows to freeze Palestinian funds after Israeli teen killed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. (AP)
Updated 10 February 2019

Netanyahu vows to freeze Palestinian funds after Israeli teen killed

  • Israel collects around $127 million a month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets
  • Netanyahu pledged to freeze money transfers to the Palestinian Authority

JERUSALEM: Nudged by rightwing political rivals after a deadly Palestinian attack on a young Israeli woman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who seeks re-election pledged Sunday to freeze money transfers to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel collects around $127 million a month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports and then transfers it to the PA.
The Israeli parliament last year passed legislation to partially withhold funds, in response to PA payments to families of Palestinians jailed by Israel for attacks against Israelis.
“By the end of the week, the staff-work necessary for implementing the law on deducting terrorists’ salaries will be completed,” Netanyahu — who faces a general election in April — told journalists at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“Next Sunday I will convene the security cabinet and we will approve the necessary decision to deduct the funds. Let nobody doubt, the funds will be deducted, at the start of next week,” he said in Hebrew.
Earlier Sunday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett was among rightwingers pressing Netanyahu to implement the law after a Palestinian was arrested at the weekend on suspicion of killing 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher.
“The law to offset terrorist funds passed...last July,” he Tweeted. “I call on the prime minister — apply the law immediately.”
Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein Al-Sheikh said that the PA would not go along with Israel withholding any part of the tax money due.
“The Palestinian Authority will refuse to receive any cleared funds if Israel deducts a penny from it,” he told AFP, speaking in Arabic.
He did not say what the PA’s next step would be.
The Israeli army said Sunday it had started preparations to demolish the West Bank home of the Palestinian suspected of Ansbacher’s killing, named by security officials as 29-year-old Arafat Irfaiya from the flashpoint city of Hebron on the occupied West Bank.
“Overnight, troops operated in Hebron, where the suspect in the murder of Ori Ansbacher is from,” the army said in an English-language statement.
“During the operation, the troops surveyed the suspect’s house in order to examine the possibility of its demolition.”
Ansbacher’s body was found late Thursday in southeast Jerusalem, and she was buried the next day in her Israeli settlement of Tekoa.
Israeli security forces arrested the suspect in a raid in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He has not yet been charged.
Both the police and the Shin Bet security agency have said investigations have so far not concluded whether it was a “terrorist attack” or driven by another motive.
In the runup to elections, however, politicians and Israeli media appeared to have already made up their minds.
“I have no doubts about the nationalist motives of the murderer,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told public radio.
“After so many years of suffering from terror we should know — this is a nationalist attack.”
Commenting on calls to execute Palestinian militant killers, Erdan said he was in favor of applying the death penalty in certain circumstances.
“If it becomes clear that there is no possibility of rehabilitating the murderer and that he abused his victim, in such cases capital punishment should be applied,” he said.
“The time has come to employ the death penalty for terrorists, as the law allows us to do,” the daily Maariv quoted MP Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Jewish Home party as saying.
Despite a court gag order, Israeli social media were abuzz over the weekend with what Yediot Aharonot newspaper called “graphic descriptions about the alleged nature of the murder.”
Police called on the public not to share “publications and reports, especially on social media, about the circumstances of the murder case — including irresponsible horrific descriptions.”
“We hereby clarify that those are completely baseless publications,” it said.
Sponsors of July’s law on Palestinian funds wrote at the time that the PA paid around $330 million a year to prisoners and their families, or seven percent of its budget.
Israel has withheld payments in the past, notably in response to the Palestinians’ 2011 admission to the UN cultural agency UNESCO as a full member.
The PA, which has limited sovereignty in parts of the West Bank, relies heavily on outside financial aid.


Iraq protests swell as UN presses Baghdad to ‘step up’

Updated 24 sec ago

Iraq protests swell as UN presses Baghdad to ‘step up’

  • UN has put forward a phased roadmap calling for an immediate end to violence and electoral reform within 2 weeks
  • Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change

BAGHDAD: Iraqi officials must “step up” to respond to mass demonstrations, the UN representative in Baghdad told AFP on Wednesday as anti-government rallies swelled in Iraq’s capital and the country’s south.
Protests demanding an overhaul of the political system have rocked Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south for weeks — the crowds unmoved by government pledges of reform and undeterred by the deaths of more than 300 demonstrators.
Washington and the United Nations have called on the government to respond seriously to the protests, with the world body’s representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert saying the country’s authorities must “step up to the plate and make things happen.”
“They are elected by the people, they are accountable to them,” the head of the UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI) told AFP in an exclusive interview.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for his part, has said he told Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi that he “deplored the death toll” and to address the popular movement’s “legitimate grievances.”
The protests had slowed for a few days following a deadly crackdown by security forces in Baghdad and major southern cities but flared again Wednesday with demonstrations by striking students and teachers.
“We’re here to back the protesters and their legitimate demands, which include teachers’ rights,” said Aqeel Atshan, a professor on strike, in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicenter of the protest movement.
In the southern port city of Basra, around 800 students returned to camp outside the provincial government headquarters, days after they had been pushed out by riot police.
Schools were also shut in the protest hotspots of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah.
Protesters have felt emboldened since the country’s top Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said they “cannot go home without sufficient reforms.”
“Students, boys and girls alike, are all here for a sit-in,” another demonstrator in Tahrir told AFP.
“If Sistani gave the orders for mass civil disobedience, everything would close — the government, the oil companies, everything. That’s how we’ll have a solution.”
The UN has put forward a phased roadmap, backed by Sistani, calling for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks.
Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN envoy, discussed the plan with lawmakers during a parliamentary session on Wednesday afternoon.
“Now is the time to act, otherwise any momentum will be lost — lost at a time when many, many Iraqis demand concrete results,” she told them on the sidelines of the parliamentary meeting.
At the session’s opening, speaker of parliament Mohammed Al-Halbussi pledged to work on laws to respond to protesters’ demands including electoral reform.
Parliament has received a draft law for electoral reform but has yet to discuss it.
Lawmakers also set dates to interrogate two ministers, which could indicate the first steps of a cabinet reshuffle announced by Abdel Mahdi.
Oil-rich Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent.
Demonstrations erupted on October 1 in fury over a lack of jobs and corruption, initially fracturing the ruling class.
Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr then called on the government to resign and President Barham Saleh suggested early elections, while other factions stood by Abdel Mahdi.
But after a series of meetings led by Iran’s influential Major General Qassem Soleimani, a consensus emerged at the weekend over the government remaining intact and both Saleh and Sadr appear to have changed their tunes.
Sadr, who is reported to be in Iran, took to Twitter on Wednesday to call on parliament to enact reforms and for “a general strike, even for one day,” but did not demand the premier step down.
Saleh, too, appears to have dropped the idea of early elections.
The agreement brokered by Soleimani appeared to have paved the way for a crackdown on demonstrations last weekend that sent the death toll amid the unrest to well over 300.
Iraq has faced growing criticism over its response to rallies, with rights defenders accusing authorities of shooting live rounds at protesters and curtailing freedom of expression with an Internet blackout and mass arrests.
Also on Wednesday, the president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, was in Baghdad to meet with the premier, president and speaker of parliament.
Barzani and Abdel Mahdi are believed to have good personal ties, and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have backed the current government.
But they have worried that any amendments to Iraq’s 2005 constitution as part of a reform process could infringe on Kurdish rights.