Palestinian authoritarianism has its roots in the Oslo Accords

Yara Hawari

Al-Jazeera  /  September 13, 2023

The Palestinian Authority was never meant to engage in democratic governance and defend the interests of the Palestinian people.

On September 13, 1993, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, flanked by a smug-looking US President Bill Clinton. They had just signed an agreement that would be hailed as a historic peace deal putting an end to the decades-old “conflict” between Palestinians and Israelis.

Around the world, people celebrated the deal, which came to be known as the Oslo Accords. It was perceived as a great feat of diplomacy. A year later, Arafat and Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Many Palestinians were also hopeful that they would finally get a sovereign state, even if it were on less than 22 percent of their original homeland. Indeed, that was the promise of the Oslo Accords – a phased process towards Palestinian statehood.

Thirty years later, the Palestinians are as far away from statehood as they have ever been. They have lost even more land to illegal Israeli settlements and are forced to live in ever shrinking bantustans across colonized Palestine. By now, it is clear that Oslo was meant only to help Israel consolidate its occupation and colonization of Palestine.

Worse still, what the Palestinians did get out of the Oslo Accords was a rather pernicious form of Palestinian authoritarianism in the territories occupied in 1967.

One of the terms of the agreement was that the exiled leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would be allowed to return only to the territories Israel occupied in 1967 – the West Bank and Gaza – and would be permitted to create an interim government known as the Palestinian Authority (PA) for a period of five years.

The PA, which was made up of members of Arafat’s party, Fatah, assumed responsibility for the affairs of the Palestinian people while the Israeli military occupation remained in place. With the backing of the international community and the Israeli regime, Arafat pursued governance based on patronage and corruption that had little tolerance for internal dissent.

Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, continued down the same path. Today, at the age of 87, he is not only one of the world’s oldest leaders but is also more than 14 years past his legal mandate despite ever dwindling support for his rule among Palestinians.

Since coming to power, Abbas has made numerous disingenuous calls for elections, the last of which was in January 2021. That year, the polls were ultimately cancelled after the PA accused the Israeli regime of refusing to allow Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to participate.

These regular false promises of elections temporarily satisfy the international community’s appetite for what it calls “democratization” of PA institutions. But the reality is that the system is so deeply rigged – in large part thanks to the Oslo Accords – that elections would inevitably result in either a continuation of the existing power structures or a new authoritarian leader coming to power.

Apart from having a distaste for polls, Abbas has also been working hard to erode any democratic spaces in the West Bank. He has merged all three branches of government – the legislative, executive and judiciary – so that there are no checks on his power. Having absolute control over Palestinian affairs, he rules by decree. In recent years, this has resulted in increasingly absurd decision-making.

Last year, for example, he dissolved the Doctors’ Syndicate after medical personnel went on strike. He then created the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies and Authorities and appointed himself the head of it, thus consolidating his power over the courts and the Ministry of Justice.

More recently, on August 10, he forced 12 governors into retirement without informing them. Many of those dismissed learned about their forced resignations from the local media.

To maintain his grip on power, Abbas also wields an extensive security apparatus. The internationally funded and trained PA security sector employs 50 percent of civil servants and takes 30 percent of the total budget of the PA – more than education, health and agriculture combined.

It is responsible for a monumental amount of human rights abuses, including the arrest of activists, the harassment of journalists and the torture of political detainees.

In many cases, repression by the PA security apparatus complements those by the Israelis. For example, in 2021, during what became known as the Unity Intifada, many activists were arrested and violently interrogated by PA security forces. This year, after the invasion of the Jenin refugee camp by Israeli regime forces, the PA arrested many of those in the camp who were previously incarcerated by the Israelis in a practice known as the “revolving door”.

Indeed, one of the caveats of the Oslo Accords was that the PA had to fully cooperate with the Israeli regime on matters of “security”. To fulfil this provision, the PA’s security apparatus has worked hard to suppress any activity deemed threatening by the Israeli regime.

It regularly hands over surveillance information about Palestinians to the Israeli army and does nothing to counter its regular deadly attacks on Palestinian villages, towns and camps. Effectively, the PA security forces work hand in hand with the Israeli regime to quell Palestinian resistance.

Indeed, given the provisions of the Oslo Accords, the PA could not have turned out any differently. A governing body that is accountable to international donors who bankroll it and the Israeli regime, which maintains ultimate control, was never going to serve the Palestinian people.

Remarkably, the notion that the Oslo Accords were a well-intentioned but failed peace process still holds strong sway in some circles in the West. The truth is that the architects of Oslo were not interested in Palestinian statehood or liberation but rather wanted to find a way to get the Palestinian leadership to quietly agree to capitulation and suppress any further resistance at the grassroots.

They have encouraged and supported Palestinian authoritarianism because it falls in line with these goals. In the end, Oslo did not bring peace to the Palestinians but yet another major obstacle to liberation.

Yara Hawari is the Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network