TEL AVIV // Israel yesterday reversed its decision to suspend the transfer of millions of dollars in badly needed tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, after weeks of international pressure for the country to release the money.
The decision may have partly been a bid by Israel to win favour with Western allies that are becoming increasingly critical of the predominantly right-wing government's policies towards the Palestinians while peace talks are stalled.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, could be seeking to avoid such criticism ahead of his visit to the US next week, where he is expected to deliver a speech before the US Congress on Israel's strategy for reigniting peace negotiations.
The Israeli gesture also came after a day of violent clashes as Palestinians marked the 1948 creation of Israel, which they term the "Nakba" or "catastrophe", in Arabic. On Sunday, at least 16 people were killed when Israeli troops fired on thousands of demonstrators taking part in marches towards Israel's borders with Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip, reflecting Arab dissatisfaction with failed efforts to create a Palestinian state.
Yesterday, Israel and Lebanon blamed each other for the killings, each one filing a complaint with the United Nations Security Council.
The White House yesterday condemned Syria's involvement in the protests. "We are also strongly opposed to the Syrian government's involvement in inciting yesterday's protests in the Golan Heights," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "Such behaviour is unacceptable and does not serve as a distraction from the Syrian government's ongoing repression of demonstrators in its own country."
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, yesterday declared three days of mourning as flags at public buildings across the West Bank were lowered to half-staff. "Their blood will not be spilled in vain, because their blood was spilled for the freedom and rights of our people," Mr Abbas was quoted by news agencies as saying.
Mr Abbas, the head of the secular Fatah movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority, may have also been looking to draw popular domestic support among Palestinians, many of whom have expressed frustration with his failed efforts to create a state.
In late April, Fatah struck a unity deal with Hamas, the Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip and a long-time bitter rival. The agreement angered Israel and prompted it to block its routine transfer of US$88 million (Dh323m) in customs and levies that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority every month. At the time, Israeli officials said they wanted guarantees that the money will not fall into Hamas's hands.
Israel views Hamas as a terror organisation that does not recognise the Jewish state's right to exist, and the suspension of the tax transfer may have been part of what the ultranationalist Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has threatened would be punitive measures against Fatah for clinching the reconciliation pact. The agreement between the two factions calls for a temporary unity government and the holding of elections within a year.
Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli finance minister and a member of the ruling right-wing Likud party, said in a statement yesterday that Israel "received suitable clarifications" that the money will not reach Hamas or be used for the purposes of financing what he termed "terror activity".
Mr Steinitz described the two-week freeze as a "yellow card" to the Palestinian Authority. He cautioned that the transfers would again be frozen if Fatah eventually formed a government with Hamas or if it started paying for militant operations against Israel.
Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, and other Palestinian leaders have urged the international community to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian Authority to pressure Israel to reverse its decision.
The Israeli suspension was condemned across the international community, drawing criticism from European leaders, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Middle East Quartet, which includes the UN, US, European Union and Russia. Last week, France announced it would give the Palestinian Authority €10 million to help pay its April staff salaries.
Some Israeli government ministers also called the move hasty, saying Israel violated its obligation under the 1994 Paris Accords, under which it is required to transfer Palestinian tax and custom revenue after it collects it at ports and border crossings.
The Palestinian Authority is heavily dependent on foreign aid and the tax transfers. The transfers provide it with US$1 billion to $1.4bn annually and account for about a third of its budget.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse