Mondoweiss / June 9, 2022
The Palestinian Authority has reached the weakest point since its inception as angry protesters take to the streets to oppose skyrocketing food prices.
Hundreds of angry Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank city of Hebron earlier this week to protest skyrocketing food prices and the high cost of living as well as Palestinian Authority (PA) failure to alleviate the crisis.
Observers view the current crisis as the harshest since the establishment of the PA following the conclusion of the Oslo Accords nearly 30 years ago.
With its aging and ill president Mahmoud Abbas, the PA seems quite helpless in the face of the problem, given its chronic financial deficit and virtual bankruptcy.
For over two years, the empty coffers of the PA forced the government to regularly delay the payment of salaries on time to more than a hundred thousand employees and civil servants.
PA prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has blamed the crisis on “international developments,” particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The whole world is suffering as a result of the Ukrainian crisis, not just our people,” said the PA premier in a TV interview this week.
While there is some veracity to Shtayyeh’s remarks regarding the Ukrainian crisis’ impact on food prices worldwide, it also seems amply clear that the PA’s rampant mismanagement, corruption, favoritism, nepotism as well the virtually complete absence of transparency and accountability are also to blame.
No mood for excuses
The visibly indignant protesters in Hebron were in no mood to listen to PA explanations and justifications.
One protester said the Palestinian people had every right to live a dignified life.
“Does the esteemed Prime Minister suggest that I tell my kids to stop eating until the Ukrainian crisis is resolved and the war there is over?”
“Does the esteemed Prime Minister suggest that I tell my kids to stop eating until the Ukrainian crisis is resolved and the war there is over?” asked protester Amjad al-Atrash. He was detained along with 13 other protesters who were released two days later.
Another protester argued that the PA should discharge the bulk of its “unnecessary army” which devours the lion’s share of the meager PA budget.
“What are these people doing, anyway? They don’t do anything except beat and humiliate the people on Israel’s behalf. But when the (Israeli) occupation troops invade and violate our towns and villages on a daily basis, our “heroic” soldiers behave like rabbits.”
The PA governor of Hebron Jibril Bakri deployed security personnel to watch the protest and prevent protesters from raising Hamas banners.
The PA has been disseminating disinformation suggesting that Hamas is planning to carry out a coup against the Fatah-dominated PA.
It is true that Hamas has bolstered its popularity in the West Bank at the expense of the PLO.
Last month, the pro-Hamas student bloc defeated all PLO factions in the student elections at Birzeit University in the central West Bank. This happened despite the harsh crackdown on the Islamist movement by both Israel and PA.
However, it is obvious that Hamas has neither the will nor the inclination to up the ante in the West Bank. Indeed, overthrowing the PA and assuming authority in Ramallah is an entirely unlikely scenario as such a feat would most certainly lead to an inevitable confrontation with Israel.
Chronic crisis and failed authority
It is uncertain how the PA will overcome the current crisis. A few weeks ago, the PA borrowed $150 million from Israel as a loan after local Palestinian banks refused to lend more money to the cash-strapped PA. It is uncertain if the Bennett government will agree to grant the PA another unconditional loan, although such a step would force the PA to be more dependent on Israel than ever. More to the point, borrowing more money from Israel would certainly seriously undermine the PA image in the view of the Palestinian street.
The PA has been threatening to sue Israel at the International Criminal Court for the killing of Palestinian journalist Shereen Abu Akleh last month. However, it seems unlikely that the PA will act on these threats, at least in the near future. The United States, Israel’s guardian ally, would likely pressure a manifestly vulnerable PA to reconsider its plans in this regard as well.
There is no doubt that the PA has reached its weakest point since its very inception. Abbas, 86, is still acting PNA president despite the expiration of his term on January 15, 2009. He is reportedly increasingly aloof and only a very few of his aides can have access to him.
Moreover, the Fatah movement, Abbas’s ruling party, is sharply divided over the question of who will succeed Abbas when his position becomes vacant. The primary candidates to take over are the commanders of various security bodies, such as the Preventative Security and General Intelligence.
However, the most popular Fatah leader is Marwan Barghouti who has been held by Israel in military detention since 2002. It is unlikely however that Israel would release him from jail unless the price is worth it, like receiving a public pledge by him to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But such a pledge by Barghouti would be a definitive political suicide on his part. Hence, the chances Israel would free him are virtually zero.
Enter Hussein al-Sheikh
A more likely scenario is that Israel and the United States will not repeat the “debacle” of 2006 when the George W. Bush administration bullied Abbas to organize legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Hamas won decisively. Instead, the Biden administration in concert with Israel, probably in coordination with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, could create an interim Palestinian leadership to evade the organization of polls which Hamas might win. Nonetheless, such a measure would be met with total Palestinian rejection.
Another possibility is that Israel would throw all its weight behind a specific candidate. Many pundits have suggested that Abbas’ close aide and confidant Hussein al-Sheikh may be Israel’s preferred choice. The 65-year-old PA official enjoys close relations with both Abbas and Israel. However, the man is despised by the Islamic camp and viewed with suspicion by large sectors of the Fatah movement. However, with Israel presumably behind him, al-Sheikh could eventually prevail but only if he managed to win the PA security apparatus over to his side.
What is certain though, is that a very precarious situation is awaiting the Palestinians after the death of Abbas.
Khalid Amayreh is a Palestinian journalist based in Dura, near Hebron, West Bank; he is an award-winning reporter who has contributed hundreds of articles to the Al-Jazeera English website from the Occupied West Bank