The months prior to the coronavirus pandemic were filled with developments attesting to the Palestinian Authority’s instability: cuts in US aid, donor fatigue, fewer resources available to the agencies that assist the Palestinians (especially UNRWA, which the US has stopped funding). The intra-Palestinian rift has entered its 13th year with no resolution in sight. Besides all this, there is growing internal restlessness over the possibility of a change of leadership. During his years in office, Abu Mazen ensured security cooperation with Israel and relative calm in Judea and Samaria. When he steps down, a succession conflict may ensue, and coordination could be compromised.
Many Palestinians view their leaders, in the West Bank and in Gaza, as corrupt. PA Chairman Abu Mazen’s occasional rejection of Israeli tax transfers as a protest measure hurts his people: tens of thousands of PA employees see their salaries slashed, or not paid at all. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the Palestinian economic crisis. The unemployment rate in Judea and Samaria has risen from 17 to 35 percent, and in Gaza from 45 to 52 percent (the figures are even worse for the younger generation). At first, the pandemic spurred Israeli-Palestinian cooperation (Israel and the PA set up a joint operations room to fight the virus, despite the fact that some PA officials and media outlets were trafficking conspiracy theories that Israel was deliberately spreading contagion among Palestinians).
Publication of the US “deal of the century” (January 28, 2020), which the Palestinians saw as completely biased in Israel’s favor, and Israel’s announcements regarding unilateral annexation of territories in Judea-Samaria, added a political crisis to the economic and health crises. Hamas called annexation a “declaration of war,” while on May 19, 2020 Abu Mazen declared the PA to be no longer bound by agreements with Israel or the US, including those relating to security cooperation. A Khalil Shikaki poll (June 2020)3 found that 52 percent of Palestinians would support a return to armed struggle against Israel in response to an annexation move.
The Trump plan is based on the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in 70 percent of Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and in Israeli areas adjacent to Gaza, which Israel would cede as part of a territorial exchange deal (amounting to around half the territory that Israel would be annexing in Judea-Samaria).
A transportation link would be built to connect the two parts of the Palestinian state. According to the plan, no one would be evacuated from their home, and Israel would annex 30 percent of the territory in Judea and Samaria (the Jordan Valley, settlement blocs, and access roads to sovereign enclaves surrounding any settlement located deep within Palestinian territory). The entire city of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the Palestinian capital would be Abu Dis, beyond the security fence. Israel would be responsible for security throughout the territory west of the Jordan.
As a condition of the establishment of their state, the Palestinians are expected to disarm Hamas, relinquish the “right of return,” and recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In order for negotiations to be conducted, Israel would have to freeze construction for four years in areas intended for the future Palestinian state. Abu Mazen persisted in his refusal to discuss the plan, despite presidential adviser Jared Kushner’s assurance (February 2, 2020) that if there are things the Palestinians “want to change, if they don’t like where [the US] drew the lines, they should come and [indicate] where they want to draw the lines.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear that, in the absence of a Palestinian partner to implement the Trump plan, Israel would not pass up such a historic opportunity under the administration of so pro-Israel an American president, and would move to determine its eastern border. The more serious Israel’s annexation intentions appeared, the louder the regional and international voices opposing those intentions grew. Some annexation critics even warned of punitive measures: immediate recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state, curtailment political relations with Israel, economic sanctions, abrogation of R&D agreements with Europe; cessation of Qatari financial assistance in Gaza, and more. Expressions of opposition to unilateral annexation were heard from Europe, Russia, Arab countries, the Pope, the US Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and more. Annexation was framed as a violation of international law which, as such, would destroy any chance of reaching an agreement based on the two-state principle. The United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, chose to address the Israeli public directly in an article in Yedioth Ahronoth (June 12, 2020), in which he cautioned that “annexation will certainly and immediately upend all Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic, and cultural ties with the Arab world, and with the United Arab Emirates.”
The King of Jordan was especially blunt in his warning (May 15, 2020) that Israeli annexation of portions of the West Bank would lead to “a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”
The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates struck Israel’s annexation of territories in Judea and Samaria from the agenda, and with it the related protests and retaliatory threats.