(Releads, adds quotes from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas)
By Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH, West Bank, March 4 (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of “gangsterism” on Wednesday over its decision to withhold the transfer of more than $100 million a month in tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf.
Opening a two-day meeting of senior Palestinian officials, when overall ties with Israel and the possibility of suspending security coordination with the Israelis will be discussed, Abbas described the tax move as a provocation.
“How are they allowed to take away our money? Are we dealing with a state or with a gangster?” he asked a gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council, its second-highest decision-making body.
Israel announced in January it was halting transfers, saying it was in retaliation for a Palestinian decision to sign up to the International Criminal Court, where it plans to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.
It is not the first time the payments, covering around two-thirds of the Palestinian budget, have been suspended, but in the past it has usually lasted only a few weeks. This time, the policy is unlikely to change until well after Israel’s March 17 election, once a new government is in place.
European and American diplomats are worried such a long suspension would push the Palestinian Authority to the brink of collapse, affecting stability across the occupied West Bank.
Already many of the PA’s 140,000 civil servants have had their pay cut by around 40 percent and there have been bouts of unrest in Ramallah, Bethlehem and other West Bank cities.
Security coordination with Israel, a critical agreement dating back to the Oslo peace accords of the mid-1990s, may end up suspended simply because police and other personnel cannot be paid, Palestinian officials have said.
“How are we going to pay the salaries?” asked Abbas, adding that as well as the tax revenues, Israel owed 1.8 billion shekels ($450 million) in unpaid salaries to Palestinians working for businesses in Israel.
Relations between the two sides have grown dangerously brittle since the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in 2014.
If a decision is taken to suspend security coordination, it would have an immediate impact on stability in West Bank cities such as Hebron, Nablus and Jenin, where anti-occupation demonstrations are common.
As well as not transferring the tax income, Israel’s state-owned electricity company has cut power to Nablus and Jenin in the past 10 days to press for payment of $492 million it says is owed by the Palestinian government.
Earlier this week, the Israeli military mobilised 13,000 troops in the West Bank in a surprise drill, a reflection of the rising security concerns.
While some members of the PLO are determined to suspend security coordination immediately, the more likely outcome is a partial suspension or an increase in the threat to do so. (Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Ralph Boulton)