Al-Jazeera / August 6, 2021
Nizar Banat’s death at the hands of PA security forces was not an anomaly.
Outspoken Palestinian Authority (PA) critic Nizar Banat’s June 24 death at the hands of the PA’s security forces sparked weeks of protests and international criticism. This came on the heels of unprecedented protests against the seizure of Palestinian homes by Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and a brutal Israeli war on Gaza.
Palestinians who protested over the death of Banat consider PA President Mahmoud Abbas to be complicit in the actions of the Israeli occupation and call for the fall of his government.
In a recent interview with The Media Line, the PA’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh apologized to the family of Banat, on behalf of President Abbas. He further explained, “Maybe a mistake occurred during the action of law enforcement. Even if he [Banat] was demanded by law or wanted to appear for justice, there is nothing to justify the matter whatsoever.” However, in the face of continued criticism, the PA also cancelled Article 22 of the “Code of Conduct” for civil servants that guarantees “freedom of expression”.
The Mahmoud Abbas-led PA has a long and well-documented track record of brutally suppressing opposition activists. But the crisis of legitimacy the PA is currently facing is not just a result of Abbas’s authoritarianism.
This crisis is as much an enduring legacy of the Oslo Accords that established the PA, not as a vehicle of the Palestinian national movement, but as an institutional mechanism purpose-built to circumscribe any form of Palestinian activism that aims to confront the Israeli occupation. Palestinian protesters are increasingly challenging that structure, and the two-state solution for which it ostensibly strives.
The PA’s purpose is to ensure Israel’s security
That the PA would be unconcerned with the Palestinian national movement was already apparent in the “letters of mutual recognition” exchanged by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on September 9, 1993.
In his letter, Arafat recognized Israel’s right to “exist in peace and security”, declared that the PLO would renounce violence and took responsibility for preventing violent attacks on Israel and disciplining violators of the agreement.
In his response, Rabin did not recognize the Palestinian demand for statehood or sovereignty. Instead, he only accepted the PLO as the “representative of the Palestinian people” and agreed to begin negotiations.
The Oslo Accords then established the PA and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) as an interim mechanism for self-governance. But the Oslo process did little to facilitate the arrival of the sovereign Palestinian state, as the confiscation of land, the expansion of the settlement movement and subsequent fragmentation of the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) continued through the course of the interim period. And since the failure of the Camp David Summit that was followed by the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel has only further consolidated its military control over the oPt.
With an intransigent Israeli occupation in place, the PA’s governance mandate today is largely limited to the stipulation of Article 8 of the Oslo Accords that states that the PA must maintain “public order and internal security” through “a strong police force”. This has resulted in the PA’s security forces being allocated the largest share of the national budget. The security sector also employs almost half of the public sector personnel.
This infrastructure has then been used to furbish a robust security cooperation with Israel. The PA’s security forces routinely hinder and suppress Palestinian activism that targets the Israeli military presence and settlements in the West Bank. The PA also engages in intelligence sharing with Israeli authorities, and it pre-emptively thwarts planned Palestinian attacks in areas and situations where the Israeli military is unable to operate.
There is also a “revolving door arrest policy” and Palestinians are arrested by the Israeli military immediately after their release from PA prisons, or vice versa. This two-tier system of arrest and detention that often involves prisoners being tortured in custody, is meant to deter Palestinian resistance activities against Israel.
Reflecting on the oddity of this cooperation, an activist said to me: “It’s just frustrating … We are fighting the Israelis, but the PA and Fatah work with them and help them. Ironically, my activism is against Israel, but I have gotten beaten up more times by the PA.”
The revolutionary has become the bureaucrat
Behind the conduct of the PA is also a generation of Fatah functionaries who shed their revolutionary garb through the course of the Oslo process.
Arafat’s renunciation of violence in 1993 was the most remarkable departure from the revolutionary ethos of the Palestinian national struggle. In 1974, Arafat appeared in the United Nations as the iconic symbol of the Palestinian liberation struggle and declared that he came bearing both “an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun”. He then implored the international community to “not let the olive branch fall from my hand”. Yet less than two decades later, he had effectively criminalized the Palestinian armed struggle.
His transformation inspired others, like a close associate and staunch Fatah member who I interviewed in 2012. Speaking of the rival Islamist faction Hamas’s military wing and its response to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, he said, “Look, I was very close with Arafat. I was trained to become a fighter. I was with Arafat in Lebanon fighting the Israelis during the civil war. I saw how he was suffering. Israelis were searching for him, house by house. He would sleep in one house for 20 minutes, and then we would transport him to the next house. But we fought because we were fighting for respect.”
However, he wasn’t supportive of Hamas’s military operations. Instead, he explained, “things have changed now. With Oslo, our leader told us that it was time that the Palestinian fighter took off the fatigues and put on a suit. I took off my military uniform and worked to build my country. I became a police officer and worked for a long time, training Palestinian Authority policemen.”
The perception that “things have changed” was also evident in my conversations with Fatah leaders in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in 2013. One such prominent Fatah member, sitting in the living room of his home in the iconic Jabalia refugee camp, said, “Look at the news. These people [Hamas] can’t run the government. All they do is talk about muqawama [resistance]. Look at the state of Gaza because of this.”
Of course, Abbas personifies the completion of this transformation of the Palestinian revolutionary. Arafat was often seen covering his entire head with the Palestinian keffiyeh, an iconic symbol of the Palestinian national struggle and the militant claim to Palestinian lands in their entirety. In comparison, his successor has little by way of military credentials. At times, Abbas ceremonially dons the keffiyeh around his neck and speaks the language of nationalism. But he rarely confronts the occupation. Instead, he maintains a security cooperation with Israel and is mostly concerned with keeping up an institutional remnant of the Oslo Accords – this, despite the Oslo process failing to secure Palestinian statehood.
The PA’s authoritarianism is funded by international donors
In the end, Abbas and the PA have been able to sustain their “brand” of governance because international donors, who continue to fund public sector salaries, institution-building efforts, and security sector reform in the oPt, consider state building to be a means of peacebuilding.
The PA enjoys minimal civilian or military control in the oPt and is largely beholden to the whims of the Israeli military occupation. Yet, donors like the European Union – which contributed €85 million towards public sector salaries and pensions in 2020 – continue to provide the PA the financial wherewithal to act like a state as a way of dis-incentivizing a military confrontation and ensuring Israel’s security.
The result is that the ruling faction, Fatah, is able to posture as synonymous with official, legitimate politics. This is in part because having officially renounced the armed struggle against Israel, they are granted the political and material support of international stakeholders as amiable negotiating partners.
More significantly though, through the well-financed security arm of the PA, they have the means to police the Palestinian population and determine what counts as legitimate and sanctioned forms of political activism.
Donors like the United States – which has worked to strengthen the Abbas leadership against Hamas – argue that this mandate allows the PA to be guarantors of security, stability and peace. But as is evident in the response of the PA to the ongoing protests, it only gives a faction, facing unprecedented levels of opposition, the resources to suppress its critics under the pretext of maintaining law and order.
A change of leadership may not solve the crisis
Edward Said rued the signing of the Oslo Accords as a symbol of the “Palestinian capitulation”. Palestinians protesting against the death of Nizar Banat also consider the conduct of the PA to be a continuation of this capitulation of the Palestinian national struggle.
Thus far there is little evidence showing that Abbas is willing to relinquish his role at the helm of the PA in the West Bank. However, in the unlikely scenario that the current crisis eventually forces a change in leadership, the new government would still be constrained by the institutional set-up of the PA and the policy priorities of donors. A paradigm shift can only take place if a new leadership is able to repurpose the PA – with the political and financial support of the donor community – as an institution that operates in tandem with the Palestinian national movement.
Somdeep Sen is an Associate Professor of International Development Studies at Roskilde University (Denmark)