Middle East Eye / July 7, 2023
After years of trying to play both sides, the PA must now choose between aiding the Palestinian national struggle or working to protect Israel.
The Palestinian Authority (PA)’s role – as expected and hoped for by the Palestinian people – is to protect Palestinians, aid the survival of their struggle, and evolve from an autonomous administrative authority to the head of a fully independent and sovereign state based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital.
This is at least the discourse used by proponents of the Oslo Accords, and as such, most Palestinians understand the PA’s purpose in these terms.
Its practical role, however, is to achieve security in areas under the PA’s control; to prevent “Palestinian violence” against Israelis and manage the civil affairs of the Palestinian population.
This is evident both in practice and in the words of the Oslo Accords. It is here where the glaring contradiction emerges between the two completely opposing functions of the PA: how can one seek to get rid of the occupation while also trying to protect it?
For Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian former president, it was possible to solve this strange and incomprehensible puzzle – at least for a while. He found a formula to strike a delicate balance between the two functions.
Arafat was trying to facilitate the second role – achieving security for Israelis – while advancing the quest for Palestinian independence and sovereignty. He was arresting Hamas members while also coordinating with the group. He encouraged resistance against Israel while jailing those involved in such acts.
At first, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis fully understood him. But by 2000, when the Camp David Summit failed to build on the Oslo Accords, signed seven years earlier, Arafat could no longer maintain this complex policy.
The diplomatic deadlock put him at a crossroads, forcing him to choose between the national role of the PA and the practical role. At this difficult moment of truth, he chose to side with the national struggle, leading to the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
Arafat knew when he made that decision, that his time was up. “The Israelis want me as a prisoner, or a fugitive, or dead,” he said in 2002, as his Ramallah headquarters was besieged by Israeli forces at the height of the Second Intifada. “But I tell them I want to be a martyr.”
Indeed, after Arafat had garnered unparalleled popular support, he was assassinated in a killing that had Israeli fingerprints all over it.
The post-Arafat era has been characterized by the same policy, with one essential difference: today, the national role of the PA has been subjugated by the practical role of protecting Israel, marking a U-turn on the Palestinian people’s aspirations for freedom and independence. Thus, the gap between the PA and the Palestinian public has grown ever wider.
Making matters worse, the PA has failed to achieve any of the political, national or even practical roles it set out to achieve.
Balance thrown off
Most Palestinians understand the challenging conditions from which the PA came about, and therefore its limitations in pursuing a fully revolutionary strategy. But even a balanced pragmatic policy – one that leaves some room for a national strategy based on liberation – has now been lost.
The delicate balance has been thrown off because the Zionist project has reached the stage of trying to end the conflict once and for all.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has begun to gradually implement his “decisive plan”, as Jewish settlements grow, Judaization accelerates and the accompanying oppression of the Palestinian people intensifies.
As a natural reaction, the Palestinian national struggle has grown, which has put the PA between a rock and a hard place, limiting its options and undermining its balancing act.
The Israelis are pressing hard for it to play its practical role in chasing down and eradicating Palestinian resistance. On the other hand, the Palestinian public is pressing in the opposite direction, demanding the PA make a clear choice to side with their national struggle.
Staying in the middle is no longer acceptable to either Israel or the Palestinians. For the PA, the dilemma is complicated, as leaning in either direction could lead to its collapse.
Israel won’t allow it to side with the national liberation project. And if it sides with maintaining its role of protecting Israel, the PA will clash with its own people, who will aim to bring it down.
This is the real crisis.
Awni Almashni in a member of the consulting council for the Fatah movement and a columnist for Ma’an