Following is a Horizon Center prepared transcript of a televised interview we conducted Saturday 15 June, 2019 with PA Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh, who is also a senior Fatah Central Committee member. The interview was coordinated with the Palestine News Network, PNN.
The Palestinian leadership has seen practical steps that were implemented on the ground in the context of this so-called peace plan. The Palestinian leadership had been actively engaged with the US Administration when it suddenly took a series of decisions that derailed the peace process and isolated the U.S. Administration, which until then had been the only broker between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The actions taken included shutting down the PLO office in Washington DC, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, halting U.S. contributions to UNRWA, undermining the status and fate of the refugees, and cutting off all financial assistance to the Palestinians. These anti-Palestinian decisions by the US Administration prompted the Palestinian leadership to react in defense of Palestinian rights and national aspirations.
The U.S. decisions were intended not only as punitive measures against the Palestinian people and leadership, but as practical steps meant to pre-empt a resolution of the conflict, at the expense of the Palestinian people. The U.S. side took critical decisions that prejudiced the outcome of permanent status negotiations even before they started. It was this same Administration that declared that Jerusalem is off the negotiations table, that determined that the Palestinian territories are not occupied, and that settlements will be annexed to Israel. All these one-sided positions not only contravene international law but also violate the Oslo accords and Declaration of Principles signed between the PLO and the Government of Israel under the auspices of previous US Administrations.
Because they negate previously signed agreements, violate international law and relevant UN resolutions, and undermine Palestinian rights and national aspirations, these positions were firmly rejected by the Palestinian leadership, which will also refuse any additional steps or peace proposals that are built on this premises. We have not seen a formal written text that can be reviewed, but we have opposed all these US decisions and the clear shifts in U.S. policy that came out in the run-up to the so called “deal of the century” or “ultimate deal.” Incidentally, while the U.S. now considers the PLO a terrorist organization, the government of Israel signed a mutual recognition agreement with the PLO in 1993. Thus, the American positions are far more radicalized and extreme compared to the Israeli positions and attitudes towards the PLO and the Palestinian people.
Manama Workshop Like a Wedding with no Groom.
Collapse of the PA?
We don’t fear a PA collapse. We are also not aiming for its collapse. At the same time, if these new Israeli and US policies lead to its collapse, then we say “to hell with it.”
The PA was created as a bridge to statehood, and was never intended as a tool to perpetuate the occupation. If it ends up serving this odd purpose only, then to hell with it.
The Palestinian leadership strongly opposes the U.S.-organized workshop in Manama, Bahrain. The workshop is meant to replace the principle of land for peace with a new principle: prosperity for peace. We believe that prosperity, development and economic activities will be the result of a successful peace agreement based on international law and the attainment of the national and political rights of the Palestinian people. The US attempt to normalize relations between Arab countries and Israel before resolving the conflict will not work. The gathering in Manama for a workshop will be like a wedding without a groom. No discussions and no plans will be turned into reality without the Palestinian leadership and people.
We informed our Arab brothers that we will not attend this workshop or any other activities that are not meant to end the Israeli occupation first. We told our Arab brothers that Israel had proposed to us a package of economic incentives and regional projects almost a year and a half ago, and that we rejected them, stressing the need to reach a political agreement first. The Palestinian cause is not about more money and prosperity, it is about freedom first, prosperity later. It is not realistic to believe that those who are waging a financial war against the PA and the Palestinian people are genuine about pushing prosperity as a path toward peace. The US financial measures against the Palestinians included cutting fiscal grants to hospitals.
The Palestinian leadership has not taken a decision to boycott the US Administration for no purpose, but rather continues to call on the US Administration to rectify its position by calling for negotiations on the basis of 1967 lines and a two-state solution. If the US Administration returns to these positions, we will resume political engagement with them immediately.
Arab countries expressed their understanding of our position on refusing to participate in the Manama workshop, and the broader decision rejecting the prelude to, and what may or may not be declared by the US Administration regarding the “deal of the century.” We are bound, as are all the Arab countries, by successive Arab summit resolutions, including Dhahran in 2018 and Tunisia in 2019, which reaffirm the principle land for peace and a two state solution on the basis of 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.
The Palestinian leadership is not demanding the Arab countries boycott or suspend relations with the US. We understand their position, and appreciate the level of pressure put upon them by the U.S. Administration. However, we trust that no Arab country will abandon its commitment to the Arab summits resolutions and to internationally acknowledged principles for resolving the conflict. We fully trust that no Arab country will fall into the trap laid by this US Administration. We also note that the Arab countries have been backing our political position and none of them have pressed us to engage in the proposed illegal schemes.
Withholding Palestinian tax revenues is part of the war
The Palestinian leadership views the current Israeli decision to withhold the tax revenues as essentially part of the war that is being waged upon us, a war that aims to force the Palestinian leadership to change its attitudes towards the “deal of the century.” This will not happen. We are against the principle of Israel deducting any sum from the tax revenues it collects on our behalf. We do not accept the principle that Israel can make such deductions on grounds of an Israeli law that criminalizes the Palestinian prisoners.
The Israelis recently proposed to us that we accept the complete amount of tax revenues after they make the deductions, by replacing the amount they deduct from other sources, through contributions from a third country, or by Israel itself refunding the three percent they keep as a collection fee. We said no to any proposal that entails or signals our acceptance of the Israeli law criminalizing our prisoners in Israeli jails. We have informed the Israelis of our position, including as recently as two days ago during a high-level meeting.
We expect the tax revenue crisis to continue for the next few months, possibly until after the upcoming Israeli elections. We have asked the Arab countries to step forward and make contributions or provide loans to help address the situation. But we will not accept the Israeli deduction, even if rejecting it leads to the collapse of the PA.
The PA is not a superpower, but we are the great power of our people when it comes to our rights and national obligations. President Abbas has informed the Israelis and all other players that even if we only have one penny, we will spend it on our prisoners and their families.
A wedding can never be real without a groom. There is a wide consensus, including in Arab official positions and Arab public opinion, in support of the Palestinian position. The U.S. deal of the century, including the Manama workshop will fail. Proposals and events like these are meant to perpetuate the occupation and turn an economic solution into a permanent solution. There nothing left to wait for. We have seen the U.S. decision recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, another step they took as part of this so-called peace plan. The U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, are both blatant violations of international law. [U.S. Ambassador] Friedman, who is a key player in shaping US policy under the current Administration, has called for the annexation of parts of the West Bank to Israel. He has removed the expression “occupation” from all official U.S. reports, and he does not recognize the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.
They don’t even recognize international resolutions, including UNSCR 2334 on settlements, which the US approved by abstention. Again, we might be a small player in international politics, but we are a superpower when it comes to our national and political rights. Nothing real will be implemented on the ground without Palestinian participation and consent.
U.S. administration positions far more radicalized than Israel’s
It was the US, not Israel, that removed Jerusalem from the negotiating table. In fact, the current U.S. Administration has taken radical decisions that Israel never took. The U.S. administration regards Jerusalem as united under Israeli sovereignty. The US administration according to Friedman views settlements as legitimate and occupation as non-existent. The US embraces official positions that Israel itself has never officially adopted. Despite this, we are not abandoning our commitment to peace. We call on all parties, including the US, to embrace the principles of the peace process including a two-state solution on 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine. If they accept this, we will reengage with the US administration to reach a lasting peace agreement. Otherwise, Palestinians will resist all their efforts. Palestinians are a superpower when it comes to their national rights and aspirations. We will continue to say no and foil all schemes that undermine our rights. The US has disqualified itself from playing the role of a broker in the peace process. Their efforts to turn the Arab peace Initiative upside down, to change the focus from one of ending the occupation to one of normalization, is not going to work.
No free Palestinian will participate in the Manama workshop. There is a wall to wall Palestinian consensus rejecting participation in any effort meant to liquidate Palestinian rights. We are not concerned about outcast individuals who may or may not attend this workshop. The official and popular Palestinian position of all mainstream players is crystal clear.
PA’s Tax Revenues Not a Grant from Israel
We do not accept the principle of Israel criminalizing Palestinian prisoners, and therefore we will not accept the deductions that Israel approved recently. The tax revenues, which amount to some 200 million USD a month, are Palestinian money, not a grant from Israel, and Israel has no right to tamper with them. This opinion is shared by many within Israel, including within the security establishment, which had warned the Israeli cabinet against taking such a potentially destabilizing move. For us it is a matter of principle and we will never endorse these deductions.
We stand with our people and prisoners on this issue. We will not accept the Israeli proposals to have a third party pay the deducted amounts, nor will we accept compensation via other sources, such as Israel returning the 3 percent it keeps as a collection fee. All these proposals are tricks to make us accept the deduction in principle. We have demanded international or third party arbitration on this issue. We don’t accept any of the whole sum deductions that are being taken as lump sums from our tax revenues. This includes arbitrary whole sum deductions, with no details provided, for electricity, sewage, and other items. We conveyed this position to very senior Israeli officials during the course of our communications including two days ago.
We will never endorse, directly or indirectly, the Israeli version of the U.S. Taylor Force Act, which criminalizes prisoners as well as to the families of those who died in the struggle to free Palestine, many as victims of violence. If we were to do so, it would lead us to a path of subsequently criminalizing the PA for having paid their stipends, and then to others suing the banks who transferred the payments.
We asked the Israelis, and they confirmed that Israel continues to pay even Rabin’s assassin his social security dues. We are not drawing any similarities, but as a matter of principle the PA will not abandon this important segment of the Palestinian society no matter what the consequences, which may include the collapse of the PA.
More than one million Palestinians have served time in Israeli jails since 1967. Embracing this Israeli law and practice means prosecuting the Palestinian leadership and people retroactively.
The tax revenues comprise about 50 percent of the total Palestinian Authority income. We have approached Arab countries to activate the Arab financial safety net as a means of coping with this situation, and we reaffirm that we will not accept the principle of Israel deduction even if it leads to the collapse of the PA financially. We understand the economic hardships that result from this, but there is no one among the Palestinians who is not impacted by this Israeli policy against the prisoners. Therefore, we will stand united, people and leadership, and bear it all.
We are working on holding an Arab conference to support the PA financially. We expect this to happen soon. Thankfully, a few of the Arab countries have already stepped forward, and we expect others to do the same. We trust they will.
President Abbas met with Shin Bet and refused any compromise on prisoners
President Abbas met with the head of Shin Bet [Israel’s General Security Service] and told him that even if we have only 42 million shekels [the amount Israel is trying to deduct] in total, we will pay the entire sum to the families of prisoners and martyrs, no matter what the consequences are. He said that the Palestinian leadership will not abandon the prisoners and will not abandon the families of the martyrs. Doing so would make them a hazard to societal stability. The Israeli law that was passed recently is unfair and unjust and comes at a time when the PA, like all other civilized countries in the world, is fighting terrorism. Dealing with the results of the longstanding conflict is not meant to reward terror against Israelis, it is meant to prevent the collapse of the social fabric and strengthen the PA security doctrine in fighting terrorism.
Israeli army incursions into Area A
We told the Israeli security establishment that their uncoordinated incursions into Area A will eventually lead to an explosion. The situation on the ground cannot bear further tensions. The recent incident in Nablus and the subsequent standoff in Bani Naim village east of Hebron are examples of how volatile this situation is.
Plans to deal with the financial crisis
The PA is seeking to hold an Arab Ministers of Finance meeting in Cairo as soon as possible. This meeting has already been requested and we are following up with the Arab League Secretariat. The main purpose for the meeting is to make a push for more contributions to meet the increasingly widening gap in the PA’s budget.
We will ask Arab countries that are able to do so to provide loans to the PA, and to meet their obligations under the Arab decision to provide a safety net to the PA. Several Arab countries have stepped forward already, and we are seeking to encourage others to do the same. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (in a bilateral context) have already moved forward on this. The PA will not accept any policy that undermines the status of the prisoners or that criminalizes them and those who have provided support to them since 1967.
The PA leadership does not have two faces. We say the same positions in closed rooms and in public. We told the international community, Israel and the Arab countries that if we were to accept the continuation of Israeli unilateral deductions from the tax revenues, the repercussions would be endless. We are seeking international or third-party arbitration on this issue so that it can be resolved once and for all.
Claims of corruption: a plot to pressure PA by undermining public opinion confidence in it
All the reports accusing senior PA and Fatah officials of corruption come as part of a campaign of psychological warfare against us. First, we urge any Palestinian citizen who has proof of corruption against any PA/ PLO official to step forward and take advantage of the mechanisms that have been set up to deal with this under Palestinian law. Anyone who goes public with fabricated or unsubstantiated claims is complicit in a plot that to undermine the confidence between the PA and the Palestinian public. We believe that if President Abbas were to accept the unjust and shameful US and Israeli proposals, he would be given the Nobel Peace Prize and the PA will be given a world certificate in transparency and good governance. But the firm stand the PA has taken has caused many to play games aimed at stirring up public opinion against us. In the end, we trust that the Palestinian public is fully aware that these false accusations are being used to put pressure on the leadership. But we will stand against this. No one can accuse the PA of involvement in terrorism after the signing and implementation of more than 83 protocols to combat terrorism at the regional and international levels — so some parties have instead opted to use allegations of corruption in a desperate attempt to undermine the stature of the PA in the eyes of its own public. The timing of these reports and the systematic way of releasing fabricated and fake documents tells it all.
Reconciliation with Hamas and a unified stand against the U.S. “deal of the century”
I salute all Palestinian factions, private sector, civil society and other players for their unified stand against the U.S. “deal of the century.” We all stand united in rejecting any schemes that don’t comply with international law and are meant to eliminate the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. As for internal reconciliation dynamics, we informed our brothers in Egypt that we are ready to implement the 2017 October agreement, which effectively ends Hamas control over the Gaza strip. When the right time comes, we will move to implement this agreement, which requires full cooperation by Hamas. For now, we all stand united to confront the serious threat to Palestinian national rights that this so-called peace plan from the U.S. represents.
Palestinian Central Council postponed
As we stand today watching and working against these political developments and threats, the PLO Central Council will convene at the right time to address all these issues. The council has already taken some major decisions, including a suspension of recognition of Israel and other drastic steps. When the time comes for Central Council meeting, the topic for discussion will not be new decisions, but rather implementation mechanisms for previous decisions. For now, this matter is deferred, to be addressed at a later stage, depending on political developments.