Palestinian-Saudi ties have grown stronger in recent weeks, which some Palestinians welcome and others reject.
On March 11, Manssour bin Mussallam, a Saudi citizen who is head of the Switzerland-based NGO the Education Relief Foundation, visited the West Bank. He was received by recently resigned Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who praised ongoing Saudi support for the Palestinian cause, and called on Arabs to visit more often.
Bin Mussallam met with Palestinian Minister of Education Sabri Saidam. A Palestinian official close to President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Bin Mussallam’s visit focused on signing an educational partnership agreement with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and strengthening Palestinian relations with Saudi Arabia.” The two sides will form a joint action committee to carry out training programs and exchange visits.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived Feb. 12 in Riyadh on a visit that hadn't been unannounced publicly. He met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the current political situation and developments relating to the Palestinian cause and Jerusalem.
It appears the visits concern many Palestinian citizens, who oppose the Saudis' growing coziness with Israel and fear the meetings could hasten the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations. Any Arab visit requires permission from and coordination with Israeli authorities, who control the border crossings. Some Palestinians argue that such coordination reflects a recognition of Israel’s control over the Palestinian territories.
“Palestinians are against the Saudi visit, as well as all visits by any Arab officials to their lands, because they pave the way to Arab-Israeli normalization," Hani al-Masri, director general of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies-Masarat, told Al-Monitor. "A Saudi-Israeli rapprochement has been taking place recently, and bin Mussallam’s visit couldn't have happened without prior coordination with Israel."
Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at An-Najah National University in Nablus, told Al-Monitor, “Bin Mussallam’s visit aimed to contain the Palestinian and Arab anger at any normalization with Israel should Saudi officials decide to visit Jerusalem under the pretext of praying [in the city’s holy sites]. With bin Mussallam’s visit, Saudi Arabia is attempting to obtain a formal Palestinian cover for possible future normalization with Israel.”
But Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and head of the Political Affairs Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, told Al-Monitor the visits are transparent and not efforts to obscure Arab interactions with Israel. “This visit correlates with King Salman’s historical ties with the Palestinian leadership and his personal contacts with President Yasser Arafat and now President Abbas," Abdullah said.
"We need official Arab support to provide a financial safety net, and Saudi Arabia supports us regularly. We need to increase support out of fear of financial bolts out of the blue due to Israeli and US sanctions. We never give Arab officials who visit us any cover to normalize their relations with Israel.”
Last month, just one day after Abbas' visit, Riyadh announced it was transferring $60 million to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its usual contribution to the Palestinian budget for November, December and January. This is to help make up for the Palestinian budget deficit in light of the US aid cuts and Israel’s withholding of the PA’s share of customs taxes.
Almost 37% of the total of foreign grants to the Palestinian budget in 2018 came from Saudi Arabia, amounting to 794 million shekels ($216 million) of the total budgeted grants of 2.16 billion shekels ($570 million). Saudi Arabia is committed to providing the PA with an average monthly value of $20 million, according to Palestinian Finance Ministry data released in January.
Before bin Mussallam’s visit, al-Khaleej Online news had quoted high-ranking Palestinian sources claiming Saudi Arabia was pressuring the PA to accept the Mideast peace plan expected from the administration of US President Donald Trump. Al-Khaleej didn't identify the sources, who also said Abbas was caught by surprise when the Saudi king asked him, during Abbas' February visit to Riyadh, to give US efforts a chance and go along with the unseen peace initiative. Palestinians fear the plan will favor Israel heavily.
Mohammed Abu Jiyab, editor-in-chief of Al-Eqtesadia newspaper in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Bin Mussallam’s visit followed statements by [Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser] Jared Kushner on Feb. 25, in which he stressed the economic aspects" of the peace deal.
Bin Mussallam's visit "could pave the way for breaking the stalemate in Saudi-Israeli relations with the help of the PA," Jiyab said. "I believe bin Mussallam came to discuss some issues that are more sensitive than a simple educational agreement, which could be related to joint Palestinian-Saudi-Israeli meetings."
The Education Relief Foundation for its part released a statement stressing that the visit aimed solely to advance the educational initiative, was not related to political activity and was coordinated solely with the Palestinian authorities.
Update: March 26, 2019. This article has been updated with a comment from the Education Relief Foundation.
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