Miffed by Palestinian unity, Israel stands on the money hose

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As it does when a Palestinian government makes a move Israel doesn’t much like, the Jewish state is withholding millions in tax revenues ordinarily passed along as a matter of course. In this case, the government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding back $89 million from the faction that runs the West Bank, Fatah, because it has agreed to reconcile with the faction that runs the Gaza Strip, Hamas.  The latter is regarded as a terrorist organization, having in the past sent suicide bombers into Israel, and in recent years, missiles.

“I think the burden of proof is on the Palestinians to make it certain, to give us guarantees that money delivered by Israel is not going to the Hamas, is not going to a terrorist organization, is not going to finance terror operations against Israeli citizens,” finance minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday.  “We ask the entire world not to fund Hamas, so we must not do so, even indirectly.”

Under peace deals signed in the 1990s, Israel collects customs and tax fees on goods flowing in and out of the Palestinian territories. The money accounts for between $1 billion and $1.4 billion a year, or roughly two-thirds of the budget for the Palestinian Authority, whose writ extends only to the West Bank since Hamas fighters pushed Fatah out of Gaza in 2007.  Last week, the factions stunned Israel by announcing they would bury the hatchet by forming a unity government of technocrats in preparation for elections next year.

Israel has cut off the tax funds several times in the past, including in 2006 after voters gave Hamas a majority in the Palestinian legislature.  Money was also cut in 2008 to punish the most moderate Palestinian leader, PA prime minister Salam Fayyad, for encouraging European governments to urge Israel to suspend construction of settlements on Palestinian land.

Fayyad was working to undo the latest effort, which another Palestinian leader dubbed “financial piracy.” “We definitely will not stop the reconciliation because of these threats, and we are in contact with all the influential international forces and the international parties which can affect this matter to stop Israel from taking these steps,” Fayyad was quoted as saying from Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, Egypt prepared to host PA president Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal for a signing of the unity agreement on Wednesday in Cairo.