Mahmoud Abbas inflicts pain as West merely shrugs – opinion

PA punishes Palestinians in its power struggle with Hamas.

By Khaled Abu Toameh, Gatestone Institute 

When Palestinians living in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip demonstrate against Israel, many in the international community, including the mainstream media, are quick to notice the protest.

It seems much less newsworthy, however, when the Palestinians take to the streets to protest against Palestinian leaders, including the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas.

When foreign journalists talk about the dire economic situation in the Gaza Strip, they tend to neglect mentioning the responsibility of the PA and Hamas for the suffering of the Palestinians living there. Instead, the journalists almost always choose to pile the blame on Israel. Somehow, no effort is made to hold the PA or Hamas governments accountable for the misery of their people.

The two rival parties have been at each other’s throats since 2007, when Hamas staged a violent coup against the PA, threw PA officials from the top floor of high buildings, and seized control of the entire Gaza Strip. Since then, Hamas has turned the Gaza Strip into a base for Iranian-backed terrorist groups and a launching pad for firing thousands of rockets at Israel.

On the other side of Israel, in the West Bank, the PA, for its part, has since been making huge efforts to topple the Hamas regime, including by imposing financial sanctions on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in the hope that a harsh way of life will induce the residents one day to revolt against Hamas.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been protesting sanctions imposed on them by the PA in the West Bank, including cutting off salaries to civil servants who are suspected of not being sufficiently loyal to the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

The protesters have appealed to the European Union for help, to no avail. Attempts by the protesters to gain the attention to their plight from the international media have also been totally ignored. This is the same EU that is quick to criticize Israel over the issue of construction in the settlements or other measures, such as the recent decision to label six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations because of their affiliation with the PLO’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States and Europe.

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In 2017, PA President Mahmoud Abbas imposed a series of financial sanctions on the Gaza Strip as part of his effort to undermine Hamas. The sanctions included, among other things, cutting off salaries to thousands of civil servants, halting financial aid to needy families and refusing to pay for electricity supplied by Israel to the Gaza Strip. In addition, Abbas suspended funding medical transfers for patients from the Gaza Strip to hospitals in the West Bank.

The sanctions triggered a wave of protests in the West Bank, where Palestinians took to the streets to demand that Abbas immediately lift the sanctions. The peaceful protests were swiftly and violently crushed by the PA security forces. Again, those protests and the crackdown did not seem to be of any interest to many in the international community, especially the Western donors that fund the PA. Had the demonstrations taken place against Israel, they would doubtless have received extensive coverage and howls of outrage from the mainstream media in the West.

The same, of course, applies to the recent anti-PA protest in the Gaza Strip. The protesters are accusing Abbas of discrimination because his sanctions target only Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

Salah Abdel Ati, head of the International Commission to Support the Rights of the Palestinian People, said that the continued suffering of civil servants whose salaries were suspended by Abbas was the “result of the discriminatory policies of the Palestinian Authority.”

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Abdel Ati accused Abbas of failing to implement court rulings ordering the PA to restore the salaries and rescind its decision to force thousands of employees into early retirement.

Abbas’s sanctions, he added, have made the civil servants and their families vulnerable to extreme poverty.

On October 31, a committee representing 600 Palestinians whose salaries were cut off by Abbas organized a sit-in in front of the headquarters of the Fatah faction (headed by Abbas) in the Gaza Strip to demand an end the sanctions.

The protesters accused the PA leadership of punishing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for their alleged affiliation with Abbas’s political rivals, including Hamas and ousted Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian leader.

Earlier, the committee sent a message to the EU in which they complained about Abbas’s punitive measures against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The message was sent ahead of a visit to a number of EU countries by PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

Hamed Abu Wadi, one of the civil servants affected by Abbas’s sanctions, appealed to the EU countries to pressure the PA government to resume the payment of the salaries.

According to Abu Wadi, the PA leadership cut off the salaries as a means of silencing and punishing its critics.

Addressing the EU, he wrote: “You are the ones who provide aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is depriving us of our salaries and rights in violation of the law.”

Another victim, Emad Abu Taha, also called on the EU to exert pressure on the PA to respect the law and implement judicial rulings to restore the salaries of the employees.

In addition to the civil servants, Abbas’s sanctions have also affected dozens of Palestinian prisoners from the Gaza Strip who are being held in Israeli prison for security-related offenses.

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The prisoners have reportedly threatened to go on a hunger strike in protest of Abbas’s sanctions, saying the PA leadership has ignored repeated appeals to restore their salaries.

Abbas did not suspend the payments to the prisoners because of their involvement in terrorism. His policy of paying allowances to thousands of prisoners and families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis remains in effect. Since the PA was established in 1994, it has spent billions of dollars paying monthly salaries to imprisoned and released terrorists, and allowances to wounded terrorists and the families of dead terrorists.

Instead, Abbas decided to punish the prisoners from the Gaza Strip because of their affiliation with his political rivals.

The families of the prisoners said that they sent a letter to Abbas, but have not received any reply. The families are now threatening to step up their protests against Abbas’s measures, which, they added, are “a clear violation of Palestinian laws.”

Again, Palestinian leaders are punishing their own people as part of the power struggle between the PA and Hamas. Again, this is happening as the world turns away from the perpetrators and fixes its obsessive gaze on Israel.

If the Biden administration is serious about reviving a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, it should start by trying to make peace between the Palestinian mini-state in the Gaza Strip and Abbas’s PA entity in the West Bank.

If the EU really cares about ending the suffering of the Palestinians, it first needs to hold Abbas responsible for imposing sanctions on his people and to cease using the Gaza Strip as a launching pad for waging jihad (holy war) on Israel. This — and not daily doses of Israel-denunciation — is the sole means of helping the Palestinians and achieving stability and peace in the Middle East.

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.