The decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend agreements with Israel has raised questions about how it could be implemented, and if it includes security coordination or will be limited to trade and economy only. Is it just a threat, or perhaps merely an attempt to appease the Palestinian street?
Abbas decided 25 July to suspend agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. Wassel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee, said a unified plan of action will be announced soon and described the decision as a new phase that requires everyone to close ranks to confront the challenges threatening the Palestinian cause. Abu Youssef further called for international protection for the Palestinian people based on international resolutions, the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of refugees.
Mahmoud Al-Aloul, Fatah’s deputy chairman, said the leadership decision includes all signed agreements, without exception. He added that the committee in charge of carrying out leadership decisions has clear directions to come up with a mechanism to implement the decision.
Some observers believe the decision has patriotic weight that could at least contribute to inter-Palestinian conciliation, while others believe “it means nothing”. The Palestinian National Council agreed, saying that the decision ends the interim phase which began in 1993 and launches the next chapter of resilience and confrontation of Israeli occupation that requires national unity.
Observers noted that Abbas left Ramallah to Tunisia to participate in the funeral of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, and Israel allowed him to travel which means that the decision to suspend agreements is nothing more than words until now. Even Israel’s response to Abbas’s suspension decision was not immediate, aggressive or punitive, which means that everything is business as usual for Israel and security coordination continues.
The framework between the PA and Israel is defined in 10 documents that are the foundation for relations between the two sides. These include agreements, protocols and declarations of principles issued in Madrid 1993, Oslo 1993, Gaza-Jericho 1994, Paris Tariff 1994, Taba 1995, Washington 1995, Hebron 1997, Wye River I in 1998, Wye River II in 1999, and security coordination in 2005.
On 13 September 1993, the PLO and Israel signed a peace agreement at the White House in the presence of most of the world’s leaders. Abbas signed the document at the time as PLO secretary general. The agreement stated the creation of a transitional self-rule authority (the Palestinian Authority) during an interim phase that would last no longer than five years. This was the umbrella agreement for several other agreements, including ones on water, electricity, security coordination, economic issues and presidential and parliamentary elections.
Ziyad Abu Ziyad, a writer and lawyer, said that the phrase “agreements signed with the Israeli side” includes the Oslo Declaration of Principles that paved the way for direct public negotiations between Israel and the PLO. These talks resulted in the Cairo agreement (Oslo II) which established the PA to take charge of civilian matters and security coordination, followed by the Paris economic agreement. Abu Ziyad said that suspending these agreements would mean erasing all the outcomes of these agreements, including the PA itself.
He explained that, for example, the Cairo agreement binds Palestinians to the central registrar at Israel’s Ministry of Interior, whereby they cannot register a birth, death, issue an ID, birth certificate, license or passport without Israel’s permission. “We are also linked to Israel through the power and water grids, and cannot live without water or electricity,” Abu Ziyad said. “We use Israeli ports or border crossings for most of our imports. We cannot bring in even a needle without going through Israel. We are also the largest consumer market of Israeli products, including basic and luxury goods at $5.8 billion annually, and including $2.1 billion in electricity, oil and water.”
He continued that halting these arrangements would be catastrophic because there are no alternatives to oil and gas, or for self-sufficiency, “which we neglected over the past 25 years”. “Instead, we opened our markets to Israeli products.” Abu Ziyad wondered whether suspending agreements would mean all of the above, and whether Israel will agree to selective suspension of agreements by the Palestinians, or will demonstrate who is master of the situation.
Political analyst Walid Abdel-Hay pondered: “What are the PA’s options after this decision? It rejects armed resistance and uprising, on the one hand, and claims it does not want to honour the agreements with Israel on the other. This means the status quo will continue, namely demolition of homes, settlement building, expelling Palestinians in rural areas and ignoring expanding Arab-Israeli normalisation. Is this the plan? The PA says it is against the resistance, because it claims it’s a farce, and against surrender, because Israel does not honour agreements. So, what is the third option?”
Abdel-Hay believes the PA is only trying to restore its corroded popularity and justify its existence, stressing that the correct action is to elect a new leadership (president and parliament). This new leadership would take the decision for peace or war.
Abdel-Sattar Qassem, a Palestinian writer, said the decision is to suspend not dissolve the agreements, which means the agreements are still in place and recognition of the Israeli entity remains, but the application of the agreements is on hold. This means the PA did not withdraw from the agreements and still recognises them, which leaves the door open for reactivation depending on preconditions that the occupation will respond to in word and deed. Qassem warned that Abbas has previously said the PA will not honour agreements if Israel doesn’t; Israel didn’t, but the PA continued to uphold them. He wondered whether this time the PA will take different steps.
Dalal Erekat, a writer, agrees the decision is nothing new since on several occasions the Palestinian national and central councils both threatened to suspend recognition of Israel until Israel recognises the state of Palestine within 1967 borders, to end security coordination with Israel and “disengage” from economic dependence enshrined in the Paris Agreement. However, Erekat argued, this is the first time the president announces the decision officially. This step saves face for the Palestinians because it expresses official anger caused by Israeli intransigence, violation of Palestinian rights and not honouring agreements that created the PA.
Erekat said the people and PA admit that the final word is up to the occupation, so why not return to conditions prior to the 1990s so Israel is responsible as an occupier, and Palestinians would demand services directly from the occupation authorities, not the PA? She added that the PA is 20 years late in taking the decision in light of continued home demolitions, forced expulsions, land seizures and settlement building. Relying on the global community to take steps to enforce UN resolutions is wishful thinking, said Erekat. For decades, the world and UN have not dared to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses and violation of laws and agreements.
Erekat believes the decision is an admission by Abbas that the PA can no longer continue the status quo, because it cannot shoulder the moral or financial burden. The decision is a clear admission by the leadership that it can no longer function. It is an implicit invitation for the occupying state to shoulder its responsibility, as it did in the past, before these agreements were signed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Abbas suspends agreements with Israel