Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff | Ha’aretz
27 September 2009
Tensions are mounting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority following Ramallah’s call on the International Court at The Hague to examine claims of “war crimes” that the IDF allegedly committed during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The issue is already weighing in on the relations between the leadership of Israel’s defense and security establishment with their counterparts in the West Bank, and is part of a growing list of Israeli complaints about the behavior of PA officials.
Meanwhile, Israel has warned the Palestinian Authority that it would condition permission for a second cellular telephone provider to operate in the West Bank – an economic issue of critical importance to the PA leadership – on the Palestinians withdrawing their request at the International Court.
The issue of a second cellular provider is at the center of talks between the PA, the international Quartet, and Israel, and has been ongoing for some months. Currently the sole provider is Pal-Tel, and the PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, considers the introduction of another carrier as an important step in improving the civilian infrastructure in the West Bank. The project is central to Watanya, the company that is set to serve as the second provider, and profits are expected to be substantial.
However, if the project is not approved by October 15, the PA will be forced to pay a penalty estimated at $300 million, the sum that has already been invested in licensing and infrastructure.
Western diplomats, including the Quartet’s envoy to the region, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, James Cunningham, have made it clear to senior Israeli officials that time is running out, and have urged them to allow for the establishment of a second provider to go forward.
Israel’s objections begin with the issue of transmission frequencies. The frequencies that the Palestinians want the new company to use are very close to ones used by the Israel Defense Forces in some of its most sensitive activities.
“Israel is making it difficult for us on many levels,” complains Mohammed Mustafa, economic adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. “They now want us to pressure Pal-Tel to release some of its frequencies, so that they can be used by Watanya.”
However, another, more substantive issue was recently added, when the Palestinian Authority appealed to the International Criminal Court. Security sources told Haaretz that this move, which was authorized by Fayyad and Abbas, incensed senior officials of the defense establishment, especially army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Ashkenazi has been kept busy by involvement in a holding action against the threat that Israeli officers would be brought before the court as a result of charges that the IDF committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip. Concern has intensified following the grave report that the Goldstone Commission released two weeks ago on behalf of the United Nations.
In Israel the argument is that the PA is being unfair, and that at the time of the operation in the Gaza Strip, last winter, its senior officials encouraged their Israeli counterparts to step up the pressure on Hamas, and even to attempt to bring its rule in the territory to the point of collapse. However, at a latter stage they joined those decrying Israel and its alleged actions in the Strip.
In light of this tension, the chief of staff conditioned his approval of a second cellular provider to the Palestinians’ withdrawing their appeal to the court.
“The PA has reached the point where it has to decide whether it is working with us or against us,” senior figures in the defense establishment have said. At the PA it is being said, in response to the Israeli demands, that Abbas and Fayyad will water down their appeal to the ICJ, though they will refuse to promise that it will rescinded entirely.
During the past year Israel defense officials have often praised the Palestinians on improving their contribution to securing the West Bank, and of the decisive character of the leadership under Fayyad. However, in recent weeks there have been increasing claims that even as the Authority is being praised by Israel and the international community, it is behaving irresponsibly by violating agreements between the two sides.
The Israeli claims focus on the growing presence of Palestinian security personnel in civilian clothing in East Jerusalem, contrary to the obligations of the PA. The security personnel participate in prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque, and at other sites in the city, and have stepped up their presence in the Jerusalem’s medical and educational facilities. Moreover, they have also been involved in the abduction of Palestinians suspected of selling property to Jews.