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Israel Palestinians

Palestinians Rejected Tax Money to Slap Israel. It’s Not Israel That’s Hurting. – The New York Times

Palestinian families are suffering intensely as their government’s tax protest continues, even though the cause — Israel’s push to annex the West Bank — has been suspended.

Credit…Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Furious that Israel was about to annex large swaths of the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, took the painful step in June of refusing to accept taxes collected by Israel that account for more than 60 percent of the authority’s budget.

Then last month, Israel suspended the annexation plan as part of its agreement to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates. Because annexation remains a possibility, though, Mr. Abbas is still refusing to accept the money, in what some Palestinian officials privately say is more an attempt to save face than to force further changes in Israeli policy.

So while Mr. Abbas looks for some kind of gesture from Israel that he can hold up as a victory, and Israel refuses to commit to dropping annexation permanently, salaries in the territory are not being paid, families are enduring hardships, and the Palestinian Authority is careering toward bankruptcy.

Late Friday, the Palestinian leader suffered another setback when a second Gulf state, Bahrain, announced it, too, would normalize relations with Israel. With this, Bahrain defied Mr. Abbas’s longstanding demand that Arab countries normalize ties with Israel only after the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Diplomats have implored Mr. Abbas to relent on the tax issue and even some senior Palestinian officials are grumbling about the futility of his position.

But in the meantime, Abu Qusay, a schoolteacher in Hebron paid by the Palestinian Authority, has stopped buying meat for dinner. He has canceled his internet service, skipped neighborhood events where he would be expected to bring gifts, avoided using his car, and pleaded with his wife and four sons to turn off lights and take shorter showers.

“I could barely make ends meet on my usual salary,” said Abu Qusay, 37, who asked to be identified only by his nickname. Along with tens of thousands of other authority employees, he said he received none of his monthly salary — $1,030 — in June, and only half of it since. “Now, I feel like I can’t breathe,” he said. “I’m struggling to put food on the table for my kids.”

Rejecting the financial transfers from Israel meant forgoing more than $100 million a month in import taxes that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf. It was one of the more drastic elements of a desperate strategy by Mr. Abbas to try to block annexation by cutting off all forms of coordination with Israel.

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Credit…Pool photo by Alaa Badarneh

When annexation appeared likely, many Palestinians accepted the salary cuts as a necessary national sacrifice. But then, Israel backed away.

Frustrating the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel insisted to his right-wing supporters that he had not actually abandoned his plan to impose Israeli sovereignty over much of the West Bank, he had merely suspended it. So Mr. Abbas could not simply declare victory.

The deal with the U.A.E. was not made in coordination with the Palestinians and was part of a normalization deal that they adamantly oppose. And from the Palestinian perspective, suspending annexation wasn’t enough: They wanted it to be canceled.

As a result, Mr. Abbas has refused to go back to the way things were.

Diplomats who have met with him say that Mr. Abbas is intent on extracting some new concessions from Israel with which to assure the Palestinian public that his rejection of the money, and their summer-long hardship, were not all in vain.

Mr. Abbas’s office and several of his most senior aides all declined to comment.

When the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, encouraged Mr. Abbas to take the money in a meeting in Ramallah last week, Mr. Abbas responded, “In return for what?” according to a person familiar with details of the exchange.

In the meantime, however, Palestinian experts are warning that Mr. Abbas’s administration could soon go broke.

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Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

“I don’t think they have much tucked away,” said Raja Khalidi, an economist who runs a research institute in Ramallah. Local banks will soon reach a point at which they will be unable to lend money to the authority, he said. “It’s not as if there’s some slush fund they’re able to pull from.”

The Palestinian Authority has survived without the tax transfers for stretches of several months in the past, but doing so while a pandemic was battering its economy has made the situation even more precarious, Mr. Khalidi said.

The European Union, the United Nations, Britain and several Arab countries have all urged the Palestinian Authority to resume accepting the transfers from Israel, according to officials briefed on the talks.

“The fiscal situation of the Palestinian Authority is overstretched and clearly unsustainable without the acceptance of transfers of the tax revenues collected by Israel,” Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, the European Union’s representative to the Palestinians, said last week.

“Those revenues are Palestinian and should be transferred and accepted irrespective of political tensions,” he said. “If no solution can be found, the entire system may collapse.”

Mr. Abbas told a group of Palestinian officials last week that he remained opposed to accepting the tax money under the decades-old economic agreements with Israel that governed those transfers. That opened the door to accepting the money on new terms. But he did not propose any.

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Credit…Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

Mohammed Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, has suggested that Mr. Abbas is refusing to accept the transfers because Israel is demanding that the Palestinians first deal directly with Israeli officials.

But Israeli security officials deny that Israel has placed any conditions on transferring the taxes to Ramallah, and say that the Palestinians need only decide to accept them.

The longer the standoff grinds on, the more it is straining the patience and fortitude of the Palestinian Authority’s work force.

While some employees said that they continued to value “national considerations” above financial ones, others contended that it highlighted a disconnect between Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian rank-and-file.

“He made the decision, but he’s not paying the price for it,” said Abu Qusay, the teacher in Hebron. “I’m the one paying the price. The president’s life hasn’t changed at all. He still has cars, bodyguards and everything he would ever need.”

Some criticism has stirred within Mr. Abbas’s own faction. As early as June, Nasser al-Kidwa, a Fatah central committee member, questioned the rejection of the transfers in a briefing with journalists. And in recent weeks, senior Fatah leaders have privately described Mr. Abbas’s position as counterproductive, officials say.

Nabil Amr, a former Palestinian Authority information minister, said he thought the authority should accept the tax transfers as long as Israel does not try to extract anything in return, repeatedly calling it “our money.”

The dissent has not yet boiled over, in part because Palestinians who work for the authority are generally leery of openly criticizing the leadership for fear of reprisal.

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Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

An officer in the Palestinian security forces, who insisted on anonymity, said his financial predicament had deteriorated so much that he had sold his only car, made his family go without air-conditioning despite the sweltering heat and made his daughter walk to school to save bus fare. His monthly salary has been cut to $515 from $735.

“I feel totally incapacitated,” said the 31-year-old officer, based in Hebron. “My heart was broken the other day when I told my son I couldn’t afford a $7 toy he asked me to buy him.”

And in Ramallah, a civil servant named Maher, who withheld his last name and the ministry where he works for fear of retaliation, said his life had been turned upside down.

Not only was his salary of $2,060 slashed in half, but he has also lost a side job translating at international conferences because those have all been canceled over the coronavirus. He said he was overwhelmed with debt and struggling to afford the bare necessities.

“I used to be a well-to-do person,” said Maher, 52, a father of three. “Now, I feel helpless. Totally helpless.”

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Palestinians working

Palestinians working in Israel face coronavirus dilemma – BBC News

Palestinian security forces search a car near the West Bank town of Hebron to prevent workers crossing illegally into Israel

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Palestinian security forces are trying to prevent workers crossing illegally into Israel

Before dawn, Palestinian security officers put on protective masks and gloves as they set up a hidden roadblock by the start of a dirt track through fields west of Hebron.

Their task is to stop labourers from crossing illegally to Israel through gaps in its separation barrier. They would not normally do this, but these are unusual times.

“We’ll prevent workers from sneaking into Israel until this pandemic is over,” says intelligence officer Raed Zghayar. “We must protect our mothers, wives and children.”

Of the 326 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, most have been traced to workers in Israel and its settlements, which have been dealing with a much larger outbreak.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) tells those returning from their jobs to spend two weeks in self-isolation, but some try to go back and forth.

After a tip-off, the Hebron patrol stops a van with five men inside. They claim they are doing nothing wrong, but an inspection turns up Israeli work permits.

The officers confiscate their belongings and tell them to collect them later. This happens dozens of times a day.

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Reuters

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The income of Palestinians with Israeli work permits is vital to the West Bank economy

Usually, more than 100,000 Palestinians with permits work in Israel and Israeli settlements, earning far better wages than they could at home. Many others have informal jobs.

Their income is vital to the West Bank economy, weakened by decades of military occupation.

Despite the tight lockdowns imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19, last month some 50,000 workers were allowed to cross, mainly for jobs in agriculture, construction and healthcare.

Under a deal struck between the PA and the Israeli government, their employers were supposed to arrange accommodation for them to stay for at least a month.

Some workers have also been sleeping in settlements to protect their jobs.

“I want to keep my family, friends and my town safe,” says Muath Balasmeh, who is temporarily living in a tent at his workplace, a factory in Ariel, in the northern West Bank.

“If I don’t work, nobody will help me with even the basics. I can’t express how hard this is. God help us. God help the workers.”

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Palestinians passing through a checkpoint near Hebron are having their temperatures checked

The United Nations has praised Israeli-Palestinian co-operation on dealing with the coronavirus, which has included joint training of health staff and Israeli provision of protective gear for Palestinian medical and security personnel.

But a political row broke out after reports that some Palestinian workers in Israel had no decent accommodation and the circulation of social media footage showing a sick man, who later tested negative for Covid-19, being dumped at a checkpoint by Israeli forces.

The PA government spokesman accused the Israeli authorities of “racist and inhumane” behaviour.

Amid fears of a crisis that would overwhelm the local health system, Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh called on workers to come home.

“The economy of Israel is not as precious as the lives of our children,” he said.

Israeli officials say the harsh criticism was unfair amid ongoing support.

“These remarks, they’re just misleading and even encouraging incitement, I’d say, in the Palestinian people,” says Major Yotam Shefer from the Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat). “We’ve been doing really a joint effort to combat this virus and it’s a common enemy.”

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Zahid Soleiman (R) was told by Palestinian medical workers to self-isolate at home

Some Palestinians have stayed in Israel for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, but others are heading home.

At the Tarqumiya checkpoint, near Hebron, long lines of workers are checked for signs of Covid-19 by PA medics wearing protective equipment.

Zahid Soleiman, who works as an ironmonger, has a fever, so he is tested for the disease on the spot. He says he is worried about infection but that 10 members of his family rely on his salary.

“What can I do? My financial situation is really bad. I hadn’t worked for three weeks before I went to Israel. I needed to earn money.”

He has now been told to isolate at home for 14 days.

The desperation of workers to return to their jobs, even during a pandemic, has underlined the economic reliance of the Palestinians on Israel – a sensitive issue in their decades-old conflict.

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