Abbas under pressure as donors move funds

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is losing control of his country, says our foreign editor, and the PA is facing a funding squeeze

July 05, 2018 15:54

Slowly but steadily, power is ebbing away from Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

The organisation that was set up to deliver a form of Palestinian self-government is eroding against an angry swell of quarrelling leaders and a disenchanted public.

Now, as international donors take their money elsewhere in growing numbers, the PA is facing a funding squeeze like never before.

In March, the US Congress passed the Taylor Force Act, which drastically cut direct American funding into the Palestinian budget — except for security and intelligence. That move came two months after the Trump administration announced it was cutting back its donations to UNRWA, the main United Nations agency working with Palestinian refugees.

This week, Australia appeared to follow suit by withdrawing the £5.6 million it gives every year to a programme for Palestinian development run by the World Bank. The money will still go to Palestinians who need it, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insisted, but will be diverted to a separate UN programme that provides humanitarian aid including food, shelter and healthcare.

This was an announcement about who spent the money, not who it was spent on. The World Bank funds were paid directly into the PA’s bank account; not so with the UN.

Trust in the PA is plummeting, not least because of its policy of paying monthly cash payments to the families of Palestinians killed, injured or imprisoned following attacks on Israeli forces.

These so-called “martyr payments” are worth up to £250m a year, according to the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet, and countries including Australia are increasingly troubled at being associated with them.

There are growing calls for Britain to review its own funding, and this week Middle East minister Alistair Burt announced a review into UK aid to Palestinian schools.

It was against this background that the Knesset passed a law this week that allows Israel to deduct martyr payments from the taxes it collects in the West Bank on behalf of the PA, a move that further chips away at its income.

Created a generation ago so that the Palestinians could exercise some form of self-government, the PA was always meant to be temporary.

The first Oslo Accord — signed by Mr Abbas and Shimon Peres in 1993 — set out a five-year period for the two sides to strike a permanent deal that would, presumably, have created a fully-formed Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Two decades have passed since that deadline and Mr Abbas is still at the helm, but the PA is not remotely close to establishing the core of an independent country.

What is more, there seems to be little hope that a decade-old schism between the two main Palestinian factions — Mr Abbas’s Fatah, which runs the PA and the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza — will be repaired soon, despite renewed hope after Egypt brokered a deal between the two at the end of last year.

For ordinary Palestinians, the outlook has rarely looked so bleak. Israel continues to occupy and blockade lands they regard as their own, and yet Israel is their only realistic source of work and income.

Their own government is notionally a democracy, but there has been no election for 13 years and 82-year-old Mr Abbas has dropped no hints of a succession plan.

Even the leaders of other Arab countries, historically a pool of steadfast support for the Palestinian cause, are distracted by Iran’s growing influence and opportunities to collaborate with Israel.

A protest last month attended by hundreds of Palestinians in Ramallah was broken up by Palestinian — not Israeli — security forces — a clear sign that disenchantment is widespread.

Change is clearly coming at the PA; the real question is whether it will be orderly or messy. The fear is that it will be the latter.


July 05, 2018 15:54

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