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Will the Palestinian Authority survive Israel's war on Gaza?

Will the Palestinian Authority survive Israel's war on Gaza?
7 min read
02 November, 2023
Analysis: The Palestinian Authority is already embattled with limited governance, waning popularity, and fiscal challenges. In the backdrop of Israel's war on Gaza, many observers feel it is teetering on the brink of survival.

As Israel intensifies its war on Gaza, a crisis of legitimacy looms over the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for a ceasefire, with the government asserting that its key objective is the annihilation of Hamas.

This has prompted speculation about Israel’s endgame, and whether the PA may assume control of Gaza once the war ends. However, numerous internal challenges within the PA have cast doubts on this possibility.

"The PA taking control of Gaza has been suggested as a potential scenario following an invasion. However, this is fraught with considerable risks. The image of the PA arriving behind Israeli tanks and warplanes, and then trying to administer a shattered and ravaged Gaza, is highly impractical," a source close to the PA told The New Arab.

The PA is already embattled with limited governance, waning popularity, and fiscal challenges. In the backdrop of the current violence, many observers feel it is teetering on the brink of survival.

It is also seen as unable to protect Palestinian civilians from escalating Israeli settler attacks and Israeli army raids in recent weeks.

“The PA security only feels comfortable in cracking down on Palestinian protestors in the West Bank, which protest the PA. But when the PA security sees Israeli settlers coming, they back off and avoid challenging them,” said the source close to the PA.

Since Hamas launched its attack on Israel on 7 October, over 129 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli settlers or soldiers in the West Bank, with more than 2,000 injured and nearly 1,000 forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations.

Moreover, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem warns that these attacks and land seizures have increased as global and local attention is fixated on Gaza and the Israel-Lebanon border.

Members of Netanyahu’s hardline right-wing government have long declared their intention to expand settlements throughout the occupied Palestinian territories in pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’.

Netanyahu’s Likud party itself views the occupied West Bank, which it calls ‘Judea and Samaria’ - the biblical name for the land - as an integral part of Israel.

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Waning legitimacy

The Palestinian Authority, established in the mid-1990s out of the Oslo Accords, was designed to govern segments of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a stepping stone toward creating an independent Palestinian state from these territories.

Dominated by the Fatah party, its schism with Hamas, another significant Palestinian political faction, has further complicated governance and has left the Palestinian territories politically and territorially divided. Hamas’ surprise attack against Israel has also undermined the standing of the PA.

Moreover, the PA’s reputation has suffered amid perceptions of its inadequacy in confronting what numerous NGOs, UN experts, and even a former head of Mossad, have termed an apartheid system.

This system, which has become increasingly ingrained since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967 following the Six-Day War, has left many Palestinians viewing the PA as an ineffective and ‘foreign’ entity within its own territories.

Palestinian Authority riot police crack down on protesters near Al Manarah square in Ramallah, the occupied West Bank, on 18 October 2023. [Getty]

“The PLO, which historically represented all Palestinians, including refugees, has been overshadowed by the PA, resulting in a fragmentation of the land, specifically into Areas A, B, and C within the West Bank,” explained Nadia Naser-Najjab, a senior lecturer in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, in an interview with The New Arab.

“Since it became funded by international donors, the role of political parties became marginalised. Over time, it has come to be viewed as an illegitimate entity by many ordinary Palestinians. It has facilitated the emergence of an ‘elite’ class, alienating itself from the general populace,” she added.

“This ‘elite class’ turned against everybody - all political parties and all forms of resistance. Even if you post something critical on Facebook, you could be arrested by the PA. Israel and international donors have supported the PA, but concurrently, Israeli negotiators have maintained that there will never be a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state,” the Palestinian academic said.

While the PA has received heavy international funding over the years, it has faced a near-constant economic crisis, further adding to governance woes.

For instance, public sector employees often don’t receive their full salaries, and unemployment has soared post-Covid-19. In September, the UN envoy to the Middle East warned that the PA’s economic crisis, partly exacerbated by decreased EU funding and a shifting of funds to Ukraine, could threaten security and regional stability.

Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently announced that Israel would cut financing for the PA on 30 October over alleged support for Hamas.

This measure, which is routinely used by Israel, is a punitive action to ensure the PA stays in line, according to Dr Naser-Najjab.

And given its limited strength and dependency on Israel and US and EU funding, this has limited its abilities to challenge the Israeli government.

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Changing opposition

The political landscape of the PA is also marred by electoral inactivity. Its current president, Mahmoud Abbas, has remained in office far beyond his official term, with no presidential elections held since 2005.

“Abbas’s more moderate stance, marked by a pacifist approach, has put him even more out of touch with the wishes of many Palestinians,” the source close to the PA added.

As a result, there is a rising tide of opposition and resistance, particularly among the younger generation, not only against Israel but also against the PA, which is seen as increasingly detached from their aspirations.

According to a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), 53 percent of Palestinians believed that an "armed struggle" against Israel was the most effective way to obtain an independent state, while 49 percent backed the dissolution of the PA.

Israeli forces have detained over 1,700 Palestinians in West Bank arrest raids since 7 October. [Getty]

This has manifested in the emergence of new armed groups. These have grown particularly in Jenin, which is home to internally displaced refugees and was a hotbed of resistance in the First and Second Intifadas, as well as in other refugee camps in Nablus and Jericho.

In July, Israel launched a ferocious attack on militants in Jenin, killing more than ten Palestinians and injuring over 100, prompting the PA to suspend security cooperation with Israel. The PA has also tried to signal some independence and opposition to Israel, particularly through this suspension.

However, as in the past, such measures are usually temporary and aim more to make a statement rather than indicate substantial defiance of Israel.

More attacks in the West Bank have continued amid Israel’s Gaza war, including further Israeli raids on Jenin in October, signalling an Israeli overstepping of the PA security forces, in addition to aerial bombardments in Tulkarem and Jenin.

Future uncertainties

To maintain relevance, the PA has sought to position itself as a crucial broker amid Saudi Arabia’s initiatives to normalise relations with Israel, particularly as Riyadh has stressed the importance of Palestinian statehood.

Its role had diminished following the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 between Israel and various Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, from which it was completely isolated.

The PA now finds itself in a precarious position, navigating the rising frustrations and grievances of the Palestinian population. With more scenes of violence and the killing of civilians emerging from Gaza, unrest in the West Bank is a real possibility.

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"The leadership vacuum that will ensue post-Abbas is daunting,” the source close to the PA said. “His death or departure may spell tumultuous times, with successors likely to be seen as proxies for Israel rather than genuine representatives of the Palestinian question."

For now, Israel may still hope to ensure that the PA is supported. Its demise and a collapse of the status quo might not align with Israel's interests, as it may trigger instability and the loss of what Israel sees as a security partner in the West Bank.

While the future remains uncertain, there is certainly a palpable increase in grievances, raising questions about potential uprisings akin to previous Intifadas. Dr Nasser-Najjab believes it’s a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ such uprisings escalate.

“How long it will take exactly, I don’t know. But it’s accumulating towards reaching a point where people say: ‘enough is enough.’”

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey