Palestinians face punishment for election choice

NewsAnalysis

The victory of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, in the Palestinian legislative elections Jan. 25 has precipitated a new stage in the U.S.-Israeli policy of doling out short rations to the Palestinian Authority so as to better control it.

While up to now the aim has been to keep the PA on a short leash under financial constraints imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the post-election aim is to bring the new government down and to force new elections.

In effect, the U.S. and Israel are imposing severe economic sanctions against the Palestinians, not unlike those imposed on the Iraqi people in the run-up to the current Iraq war, with the aim of bringing about regime change.

They want a legislative council more to their liking, regardless of how the Palestinian people voted, and regardless of statements by the Hamas leadership that it is prepared to observe a 10-year truce if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders, releases its political prisoners and recognizes the right of return for Palestinians.

Hamas and others have criticized the threatened aid cutoff as blackmail, and have appealed for worldwide support to counter such moves.

Citing Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist, the Israeli government has stopped remitting taxes and customs revenues collected from Palestinians to the PA to the tune of about $55 million a month, money that is rightfully theirs. Israel has further announced a virtual cutoff of many vital supplies, including fuel oil, natural gas and water, which are normally paid for out of such taxes.

“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” Dov Weinglass, an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, recently told reporters.

But such cuts are likely to take a severe human toll. With an unemployment rate of at least 27 percent and an economy in ruins, Palestinians are heavily dependent on outside assistance. Ali Abunimah, a founder of the Electronic Intifada web site, told the Christian Science Monitor that Weinglass’ statement was “chilling and cruel.”

“There will be hunger,” Abunimah said.

The U.S., too, has announced its intention to radically cut its financial support to the PA and to persuade its allies to do likewise. The U.S. alone provides about a third of the nearly $1.1 billion in annual aid to the Palestinians. Several bills in Congress, particularly HR 4681, the “Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006,” would punish the Palestinian people for electing Hamas by sharply slashing humanitarian aid.

The bill has been denounced by a wide spectrum of U.S. peace and justice groups, including the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Friends Service Committee, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Palestinian American Congress, Peace Action, Progressive Democrats of America and United for Peace and Justice.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to cut off financial support to the Palestinians, but met with opposition. The rulers of both nations are no doubt concerned heightened tensions and turmoil in the region, which might jeopardize their own stability as well.

Such concerns are well founded. On Feb. 27 James Wolfsensohn, the special envoy for the four powers known as the Quartet, which is supposedly mediating the Middle East conflict, said the PA could face financial collapse within two weeks as a result of Israel’s cutoff of the tax transfers.

Such a situation is likely to create “rising tension leading to violence and chaos” in the area, with “wide-ranging consequences” for “security and stability for both Palestinians and Israelis.”

Some voices within Israel have also expressed misgivings. In speaking about the non-remittance of Palestinian taxes, for example, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz editorialized: “First, quite simply, this is not our money. It is theirs. Second, starving Palestinians will not make our lives any more secure.”

In an urgent stopgap measure, the European Union, the largest single source of support for the PA, announced Feb. 27 that it is granting $144 million to the Palestinians. About $47 million of that amount will be used to pay Israeli companies for energy bills, $76 million will go to UN relief agencies, and $21 million will help pay the salaries of the 140,000 people on the PA payroll. But long-term EU support is uncertain.