By Mel Frykberg | Inter Press Service
RAMALLAH, Oct 9 (IPS) - The Palestinian Authority (PA) is trying desperately to contain the political fallout following its decision to withdraw support for a UN report into war crimes committed in Gaza in December and January.
The UN Security Council had been due to vote last Friday on a resolution that would have condemned Israel's failure to cooperate with a UN war crimes investigation led by South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Goldstone's report accused both Hamas and Israel of possible war crimes during Israel's three-week bombardment of Gaza at the beginning of the year.
His report further backed the findings of Israeli and international human rights organisations that a significant number of the 1,500 Gazans killed in the war were civilians and that Israel had possibly deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Following intense U.S. and Israeli pressure, the PA withdrew its hitherto strong support for the report at the beginning of the week. The UN Security Council vote has now been postponed until March next year.
However, Palestinian anger and shock continues to mount in light of the fact that there was a strong possibility that the report could have reached the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, and a number of Israeli officers put on trial, bringing some justice for Gaza's victims.
PA economy minister Bassem Khoury handed in his resignation over the matter, and other factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) condemned the PA for backing down, while street demonstrations have taken place.
What has especially irked Palestinians is the PA's inconsistency, with some officials admitting to withdrawing support for the report while others simultaneously denying it.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas and central Fatah figure Mahmoud Dahlan, despite supposedly being key figures behind the withdrawal, announced that they would establish a commission to investigate why PA support for Goldstone's report had been withdrawn.
"Somebody in the PA is going to be made a scapegoat and forced to pay a big price politically," Dr Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah told IPS. "It is clear that despite his denials PA President Abbas was behind the decision to withdraw support for the report, but he will never admit to it," Awad told IPS.
However, Ramallah-based Fatah leader Mustafa Abdelhadi was more conciliatory. "We are waiting for answers. We want the PA to explain to Fatah members why they withdrew support for the report as this is a major issue," Abdelhadi told IPS.
Palestinians are well aware that one of the main reasons for the PA's sudden backtracking, besides international pressure, is business interests.
Israel had repeatedly warned the PA that if it continued to support Goldstone's report it would withdraw permission for a second cellular telephone company to be established in the West Bank, an issue of critical economic importance to the PA leadership and to the civilian infrastructure of the West Bank.
Shalom Kital, an aide to Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak, said that Israel would not release a share of the radio frequency it had promised the PA unless the latter dropped its efforts to put Israeli soldiers and officers in the dock over the Gaza attacks.
"It's a condition. We are saying to the Palestinians that if you want a normal life and are trying to embark on a new way, you must stop your incitement," said Kital.
"We are helping the Palestinian economy but one thing we ask them is to stop with these embarrassing charges," Kital added, referring to the UN war crime charges.
Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi also conditioned his support for the establishment of Wataniya, the second telephone company, on PA withdrawal of support for the Goldstone report and a possible UN resolution.
Ashkenazi has been heavily involved in defensive action against the threat of Israeli officers being brought before an international court.
Jawwal, the sole Palestinian telecommunications company in the West Bank, operates on very limited MHz bandwidth provided by the Israelis. Much of the remaining available bandwidth spectrum in the occupied territory is used by the Israeli military.
Approximately 60 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli control, and Jawwal users are only able to receive calls there but not make outgoing calls. Consequently Jawwal's over-laden network provides poor service and charges high rates for out-of-network calls provided by four unauthorised Israeli mobile companies which step into the void, making significant profits by capturing 30 percent of the Palestinian market.
These Israel companies further refuse to pay taxes or licence fees to the PA for operating telecommunication equipment from illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Wataniya Palestine, which is Qatari-owned but controlled by the Palestine Investment Fund and Wataniya Telecom of Kuwait, had planned to invest 700 million dollars, the second largest private investment in the West Bank, in the second telephone company.
Over the past two years Wataniya Telecom erected 350 telecommunication towers in the West Bank and prepared to challenge Jawwal's domination. Thousands of new jobs were expected to be created in the region as a result.
But the Israelis have been holding up essential telecommunication equipment at their ports and have failed to deliver the necessary 4.8 MHz frequency as agreed to last year. Most major carriers internationally rely on at least 10 MHz to operate.
An Oct. 15 deadline is looming for Israel to provide the necessary frequency. If this is not forthcoming, Wataniya has threatened to withdraw its project which would force the PA to repay an estimated 300 million dollars already invested in licensing and infrastructure fees, and another 200 million dollars in expenses.
The PA does not have this money and relies largely on handouts from Western donors to keep running. Expenditure prioritisation is said to be channelled towards security, business cronies and supporters.
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