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Symbolic shake-up? The internal politics of the PA reshuffle

Symbolic shake-up? The internal politics behind the Palestinian Authority reshuffle
6 min read
21 August, 2023
Analysis: President Abbas' recent decision to sack most Palestinian Authority governors appears to respond to long-standing demands for political upheaval, though it's unlikely to effect real change amid growing frustrations.

In a surprise move earlier this month, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas fired the majority of the governors in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The round of sackings targeted the governors of eight provinces under Palestinian administration.

Four governors were also dismissed in the besieged Gaza Strip, where the Fatah-controlled PA has lacked authority since Hamas took over the coastal enclave in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Internal tensions have deepened since 2021, when Abu Mazen, as the PA leader is commonly known, delayed Palestinian legislative elections in which the ruling Fatah party was expected to endure another defeat to Hamas.

Though no reason was provided for the sudden shake-up and replacements were not appointed. Several of the concerned governors reportedly learned about their dismissal through local media, while a presidential committee was established to find suitable candidates to take over the positions.

The overhaul includes flashpoint cities such as Jenin and Nablus that have witnessed a surge in Palestinian armed resistance in recent months in a context of rising violence in the West Bank, where the PA has intensified its crackdown on the armed factions undermining its rule, even while Israel has been repeatedly launching military raids.

According to Younis Tirawi, an independent observer of Palestinian affairs, the main purpose of the reshuffle is to “increase coordination between the governors and the PA security forces” to better handle security developments in the West Bank.

Governors, most of whom are drawn from the senior ranks of Fatah and the security services, have often been targets of public anger. Last month, the Jenin governor’s office came under criticism when the PA detained Palestinian fighters after an Israeli military incursion.

Several demonstrations were reported in Jenin and other West Bank cities, condemning the arrests and protesting against what residents and armed young men called the PA’s “cooperation with the Israeli occupation”.

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Since the authority maintains security coordination with Israel, Palestinians increasingly perceive Abbas and Fatah leaders as collaborators, assisting Israel’s army and security forces to pre-empt Palestinian attacks against Israeli targets, and facilitating and entrenching its ongoing occupation.

Through his drastic step, President Abbas shows some semblance of intent to act on the calls for change in Fatah politics in the midst of growing frustration. Yet, experts are sceptical that the decision would have a significant impact on the ground.

“It’s not going to move Palestinian politics beyond its state of stagnation. There’s still no Palestinian reconciliation, no reforms, there won’t be elections or anything meaningful politically,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow and director of the Programme on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab.

In his view, by replacing a number of governors, Abbas intends to revive his leadership and rebuild some public trust.

Abbas, who has led the Palestinian Authority since 2005 despite growing disapproval of his leadership, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September 2022. [Getty]

“Abu Mazen is partly trying to show that things are moving while giving his inner circle the opportunity to renew their loyalty,” Elgindy explained. 

Tirawi believes that the announced replacement is mainly motivated by an internal rift between the two key branches of the Palestinian security services.

“It’s a political game whereby the responsibility to select the new governors is going to be shifted from the Preventive Security to the General Intelligence,” he explained to TNA, noting that most of the replaced PA representatives in the West Bank were picked from the Preventive Security Force.

He also remarked that General Intelligence chief Majed Faraj occupies a prime position in the committee tasked with nominating the new governors.

The PA has seen its credibility starkly undermined and gradually lost control of security in certain areas, notably in the northern West Bank, leaving a power vacuum that has been filled by radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as unaffiliated groups made up of armed youths.

New resistance groups have emerged in Jenin and Nablus in the past year confronting the Israeli army during regular raids of both cities. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, in the deadliest year on record for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Palestinians see that the PA has been unable to prevent incoming attacks by Israeli forces or protect its people from regular assaults by Jewish settlers, which have been on the rise since the formation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, along with relentless Israeli settlement building.

Palestinian security officials have acknowledged the PA’s powerlessness in its administered provinces.

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“We understand the Palestinian Authority has lost power,” said former Jenin governor Maj. Gen. Akram Rajoub. “But we are trying to control the chaos that erupts when Israel invades. Chaos is what undermines respect for the authority.”

“If we think we’re establishing control now, we’re not fooling ourselves,” said Ibrahim Abahre, deputy head of Preventive Security in Jenin as Palestinian police launched a campaign to restore order in the northern city following a wave of Israeli army raids. “At any moment, the Israeli army could enter and everything could explode.”

Former advisor to the PA Ghait al-Omari expressed doubt over the effect of the firing of Palestinian governors on public support for the authority.

“Such an approach is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the PA’s domestic standing absent more significant reform,” he said, adding that President Abbas has, “a history of using dramatic domestic announcements to project a sense of motion without creating actual change”.

During his visit to Jenin after a number of deadly Israeli raids, Abbas was met with protests by Palestinian residents, on 12 July 2023. [Getty]

The PA’s impotence in the face of spiralling violence in the region has added to the poor governance and political stagnation within the authority, which has limited rule over Areas A and B in the West Bank, and runs civil affairs like education, health and the economy.

There has been widespread domestic discontent with the declining level of public services, the recurring withholding of salary payments from public employees, and clearly a loss of confidence in the PA and its institutions.

A June opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey research found that half of the public believe that the dissolution of the PA serves the interests of the Palestinian people, and 80% want Abu Mazen to resign.

The self-governing body has failed to negotiate a settlement with Israel, under the false prospect of Palestinian statehood, which has made it very unpopular in the Palestinian streets.

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Palestinians have often accused it of being corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian. There have been no national elections since 2006, and Abbas’ original four-year mandate ended in 2009.

On top of that, the internal division between the parallel governments of Hamas in Gaza and of the PA in the West Bank has been ongoing for 17 years. The latest attempt to bridge the gap occurred at the end of July, when the rival factions met in Egypt and agreed to form a reconciliation committee to continue talks to end the split.

The Islamic Jihad did not attend, demanding the PA to release its members imprisoned by its security forces. At the meeting, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on Abu Mazen to end “security collaboration” with Israel and “political arrests”.

“All these flaws and contradictions reflect badly on the PA. The Palestinian public views it as a liability rather than an asset,” Elgindy explained, emphasising that the political entity is facing an existential crisis.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec