Is Palestinian Authority about to collapse after months-long unrest?

Is Palestinian Authority about to collapse after months-long unrest?
The Israeli government is already preparing scenarios for the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which has been deeply weakened by unrest, challenge to its legitimacy and political and economic failures.
7 min read
06 January, 2016
Will Palestinian Authority survive 81-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas's departure? [AFP]
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel must prepare for the possibility that the Palestinian Authority, the governing authority set up under the 1990s Oslo accords that were meant to lead to a final peace deal, will collapse, in a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet.

"We must prevent the PA from collapsing if possible, but at the same time, we must prepare in case it happens," he said, according to two senior officials quoted by Israeli press.

Over the past 10 days, reports said Israel's diplomatic-security cabinet held successive meetings on the possibility that the PA might collapse, in light of the freeze in the diplomatic process, ongoing unrest in the Palestinian territories, the economic crisis in the West Bank and the political crisis within the Palestinian leadership.

One senior Israeli official said the discussions about a possible collapse of the PA were sparked by both written and oral opinions warning of this possibility that were given to the government by the defence establishment over the last two months.

In any such scenario, he said, the PA was liable "to collapse on Israel," meaning that Israel would be stuck with responsibility for both security and civilian affairs in areas now controlled by the PA, according to Israeli newspapers.

The defence establishment reportedly advised the diplomatic-security cabinet "to adopt an official policy of preventing such a collapse, not just to say we aren't interested in a collapse, but to make gestures and take steps on the ground that will stave off the materialisation of such a scenario."

The Israeli defence establishment has warned the government of impending collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and Netanyahu is said to be taking measured to prevent this scenario, though things could get out of control

Netanyahu reportedly accepted the defence establishment's position and has effectively adopted a policy of preventing the PA's collapse.

In a briefing for reporters during the Paris Climate Conference in early December, he said he doesn't want the PA to collapse, because the alternative is liable to be worse.

However, some Israeli ministers, according to Israeli daily Haaretz, do not support Netanyahu's desire to prevent the collapse of the PA and make conciliatory gestures in the field.

During the meetings of the security cabinet in recent weeks, there were also scenarios described in which even if Israel took steps to strengthen the PA, it might not be able to prevent its disintegration. The defence establishment, according to Israeli press, believes that the PA could fall apart for internal reasons that have nothing to do with Israel or on which Israel can have little influence.

For example, the cabinet discussed the possible collapse of the PA if PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 81, would die.

Under this scenario the resulting succession struggle could cause such a crisis in the PA that it would be unable to function. The Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence have no assessment as to which dominant figure might take Abbas's place.

The names that come up during internal discussions are "the usual suspects," like senior Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, former senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan or the head of Palestinian intelligence Majid Faraj. 

The United States, the EU, and other elements in the international community are said to be very worried about the possible collapse of the PA and the anarchy liable to follow.

Palestinian Authority 'adrift'

Three months into a wave of violence some have likened to a new uprising, the PA has found itself adrift and increasingly out of touch with frustrated youths behind the unrest, analysts say.

The speculation of an eventual collapse of the PA not only comes from Israel, but from Palestinians as well.

"Young people see no political horizon and suffer from economic crisis and unemployment," with nearly half jobless compared with more than 27 per cent of the overall population, said Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University near Ramallah and a former Palestinian Cabinet minister.

Young Palestinians see little hope of an independent state more than two decades after the Oslo accords -- and many do not feel president Mahmoud Abbas represents their concerns.

They have come of age as Israeli settlement building has continued and with their own political leadership deeply fractured.

Most Palestinians support an armed intifada and will not shed any tears if the PA collapses due to its failures on all fronts


In a recent poll, two-thirds of Palestinians said they believed a new armed Intifada would serve "national interests" better than negotiations.

Security coordination between the PA and Israel has at the same time been maintained, an arrangement some analysts say is vital for Abbas to keep hardliners who oppose him in check.

Palestinian elections have not been held in a decade due to the bitter split between Hamas, the Islamist movement which rules the Gaza Strip, and Abbas's Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.

Abbas's mandate expired in 2009 but he remains in office because there have been no polls. The Palestinian parliament last met in 2007, following a general election the previous year won by Hamas.

"The leaders are incapable of satisfying their [young Palestinians'] political and economic demands," said Khatib.

He said Palestinian politics "is at an impasse and incapable of reinventing itself".

'We will not shed a tear'

The unrest has seen violent protests as well as a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks against Israelis.

Violence since the start of October has claimed the lives of 139 people on the Palestinian side, as well as 22 Israelis, an American and an Eritrean.

Many of the Palestinians were killed while carrying out attacks, while others were shot dead by Israeli security forces during clashes.

A large portion of the attackers have been young people, including teenagers.

The security coordination between the PA and Israel is one of the biggest obstacles to Palestinian reconciliation and unity against the occupation


In the early stages of the unrest, PA security forces allowed crowds to approach checkpoints, where they protested and clashed with Israeli security forces.

"Since then, they have increased their presence," said Seif Al Islam Daghlas of the Birzeit student council.

"Especially when US Secretary of State John Kerry came [in November], we saw Palestinian security was now stopping our protests."

Such an intervention could be seen recently when PA security forces in plainclothes violently dispersed protesters moving towards an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah.

They also detained journalists and confiscated equipment.

Kerry's visit and other international efforts have failed to restore calm, and the US secretary of state even warned in early December about the potential repercussions of a PA collapse.

"Without the PA security forces, the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] could be forced to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to the West Bank indefinitely to fill the void," Kerry said.

"Are Israelis prepared for the consequences this would have for their children and grandchildren who serve in the IDF when the inevitable friction leads to confrontation and violence?"

For Mohammed Shtayyeh, a high-ranking Fatah member and Palestine Liberation Organisation official, the collapse of the PA, which remains heavily dependent on international aid, would mean little.

More than 60 per cent of the West Bank is already under complete Israeli control.

"Should Israel cause it to collapse by imposing more restrictions, we will not shed a tear because at the end of the day the true head of the West Bank is the Israeli military governor," he said, referring to the Israeli defence ministry unit that manages civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories.

Where the unrest will lead is a constant topic of debate among both Israelis and Palestinians.

Khalil Shikaki, whose Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research conducted the poll showing growing frustration among Palestinians, said the situation was tenuous.

"If someone commits a serious error one day, such as the Israeli army killing many people or the demoralised Palestinian security forces turning their guns on Israelis," a significant escalation could occur, he said.