Jerusalem24 – The Israeli government imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA) in early January, following the passing of a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly calling for the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on Israel’s policies of occupation in Palestine.
A member of Israel’s new extreme right-wing government threatened “permanent occupation” in response to the resolution, which former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid had individually urged world leaders to vote against.
A statement published on Monday and signed by 94 countries calls for “the immediate reversal” of the “punitive measures against the Palestinian people, leadership, and civil society”.
But many Palestinians themselves view these sanctions as a step in the right direction.
Senior Palestinian officials immediately warned that the sanctions would lead to the “collapse” of the PA, and Israeli media – pointing out the fact that Israel needs a functioning PA in order to maintain its military occupation of the West Bank – called the sanctions “another step in Israel’s march of folly”.
Even Hamas came out in a rare show of support for the PA, stating: “We condemn the crime of imposing punitive measures against our people and the Palestinian Authority by the Israeli occupation, and we call on it not to succumb to these threats and extortion.”
The sanctions include seizing around NIS 139 million from the PA tax revenue funds (which Israel collects “on the PA’s behalf”) in order to “compensate Israeli victims of terrorism”, according to far-right extremist and new Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.
The theft of tax revenue is a tactic frequently used by Israel in order to punish Palestine in its bid for accession to various international organizations. The PA estimates it lost $11 billion in tax revenue to punitive Israeli measures between 2011 and 2021.
While the tax revenue seizure will affect the PA’s ability to disburse salaries to government employees – such as teachers and doctors, who often go months with delayed or reduced salaries – the sanctions also include the revocation of special privileges, such as VIP permits, granted to select Palestinian Authority officials.
These VIP permits ensure amongst other things easy access to Israeli cities beyond the Green Line and the ability to pass through Israeli checkpoints and airports without the protracted delays Palestinians have become accustomed to facing.
The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates asserted that facilitating the movement of Palestinian officials under occupation does not constitute “facilitations” or “privileges”, but is rather part of Israel’s obligations as an occupying power.
This and other statements by the PA, however, do not appear to reflect Palestinian popular opinion.
“The Israeli occupation managed to create an elite leadership who are away and disconnected from their people and community,” activist Issa Amer tells Jerusalem24. “So many Palestinians were very happy that the Israeli occupation took and withdrew the VIP cards.”
“A sub-contractor to the occupation”
Issa Amer is a bustling activist, the co-founder of grassroots group Youth Against Settlements (YAS) in Hebron, his hometown, as well as an outspoken PA critic.
In addition to documenting violations, engaging in international advocacy, and leading tours of downtown Hebron to expose the reality of Palestinians on the ground, YAS invests time and energy into their own immediate community, providing capacity-building for young and old, undertaking maintenance of local houses, implementing volunteering days, and opening a kindergarten.
“We as Palestinians never give up,” says Amer. “We never lose methods to represent ourselves and to work to get our rights and protect our identity.”
These community-focused and community-led activities fill a gap where the PA hasn’t lived up to its obligations. Amer points out that the poverty rate in central Hebron is over 80%.
Amer, who professes nonviolence and has been arrested dozens of times by the Israeli military (and by the PA) has been vocal in his criticism of Mahmoud Abbas’ government, which canceled in July 2021 the presidential elections slated to take place for the first time in 16 years.
In a statement on Facebook following the withdrawal of Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki’s VIP permit, Amer affirms it is “nationally and morally unacceptable for any person to accept privileges from the occupation. Whoever wants to resist the occupation must know there is a price and sacrifice, and whoever accepts a position of leadership must prepare for these sacrifices, and refuse to be bought with a permit or VIP card.”
“Many Palestinians see that the PA is a sub-contractor of the Israeli occupation,” Amer tells us, citing an accusation leveled at the PA by numerous Palestinian – and international – civil society and human rights organizations, and an opinion voiced in the cafes of Ramallah or Jenin.
A December 2022 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 72% of Palestinians are in favor of entrusting resistance to the occupation to Palestinian armed groups such as the Lions’ Den “which do not take orders from the PA and are not part of the PA security services”. A further 87% say the PA does not have the legitimacy to arrest the members of these groups – which it has done, albeit reluctantly, a handful of times in 2022.
“The occupation doesn’t give incentives without asking for something else – so they gave PA leaders some kind of privilege,” says Amer. “They made them ask for their own privilege and incentive, and to live in a different world, to make the occupation easier for these leaders so that they don’t fight it.”
The granting of these privileges is not looked upon kindly by Palestinians, 81% of whom believe the PA is corrupt, and 59% of whom think the PA is a burden on the Palestinian people.
Amer sums up the popular opinion with one simple proclamation: “We want to be all equal under the same occupation.”
A time for reforms
With a leadership lacking in legitimacy, Palestinians feel particularly vulnerable to the new extreme right-wing policies of Netanyahu’s coalition, with 69% expecting annexation of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as well as full annexation of the Jordan Valley.
Increasing military and settler violence – exemplified in the first three weeks of Netanyahu’s new terms by a surge in killings and attacks – are also a pressing concern.
“In the last 10 days only, we’ve seen a high wave of settler violence all over the West Bank,” says Amer, whose hometown of Hebron is a particular hotspot for military and settler violence. “We think that the violence will be all over Area C [the area of the occupied West Bank under full Israeli civil and military control], both from the settlers and the new Israeli government.”
“I think the situation has changed, and will be much worse than before.”
But for all of his misgivings about the current Palestinian leadership, Amer thinks the PA still has a role to play in containing the fallout of the expected right-wing Israeli policies – but only if they seize the moment.
“The Palestinians see that the new Israeli government is the enemy of all the Palestinians,” says Amer. “It’s a critical moment. They should do reforms for the PA and go back to their own people, and the PA leadership should refuse VIP cards.”
“Take to the streets”
But the main agents of change, insists Amer, will be the Palestinian people themselves.
Amer thinks Palestinians need to “wake up from their dream that they will get blue IDs [Israeli IDs]” and reject the notion of a “relationship of co-existence” – a message which he addresses both to Palestinians on the street and the ones in office.
“In general, we should end the division between Gaza and the West Bank and between the political parties, the division within the Palestinian leadership,” Amer says of Fatah and Hamas. “We should fight corruption all together and have democracy, and engage women and youth in decision-making and change.”
Diversity is one of the main criteria of a powerful democracy, says Amer.
As for the Palestinian people, Amer has a clear – and emphatic – message:
“Our option now is to go down to the street and force the PA to achieve democracy and fight corruption and achieve unity. If they [the PA] don’t see the danger coming from the Israeli fascist government, I think we should wake them up.”
“This is a call to all Palestinians to go down to the street. To write, to talk, and make public opinion – to make a change. We should all work together for a diverse society full of non-violent resistance and activism.”
Listen to the full interview on Vibes.