The Palestinian Authority is facing an existential crisis over its inability to change the life of Palestinians in any meaningful way. Has the body lost its legitimacy?

The latest Trump decision on Jerusalem did not only renew Palestinian outrage at the clear US bias in favour of Israel – it also triggered outrage towards Palestinian leadership. 

This was another nail in the coffin for Palestinian diplomacy and any residual trust in the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

These sentiments, however, have not translated into a mass protest movement seeking the dissolution of the PA. Understanding this Palestinian paradox can help us move forward.

How does the Palestinian Authority gain its legitimacy?

A poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the announcement of Trump showed that 70 percent of Palestinians demanded Abbas resign.

Over the last two decades, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank chose negotiations as their sole strategy to end Israeli occupation. It is when the farce of negotiations collapsed, that they resorted to a “diplomatic strategy” in an effort to persuade the Palestinians that they were indeed doing something. In reality, not a single effort by the PA in the last two decades has brought any Palestinian even an inch closer to freedom.

On the contrary, many see the PA as an additional obstacle to ending the Israeli occupation. This is not only due to their “diplomatic” failures but also their close security collaboration with Israel and the practices of their internal security apparatus.

The simple explanation for "security collaboration" is that the PA security forces are trained to protect Israel from legitimate Palestinian resistance by helping stifle protests or quash other forms of resistance and spy on Palestinian “suspects” on behalf of Israel. 

Israel in practice has outsourced its occupation in part to native informants. This is while it continues to do what any colonial power does: deprive those it oppresses of any right to security and self-defence.

While the PA often claims that its security policies, including security coordination with Israel, are needed to maintain law and order, it actually needs this collaboration because it understands that its survival depends substantially on the occupation continuing. In helping Israel suppress any resistance and eliminate any opposition to its policies it ensures, in turn, the maintenance of Fatah’s power.

The Geneva based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor documented over 1,200 arbitrary detentions in the West Bank in 2015, targeting PA opponents. The list included journalists, students, activists and ordinary citizens.

Security coordination has faced growing criticism in recent years. A poll from September 2017 conducted by PSR shows that 73 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza support the halting of security coordination with Israel. Palestinians view the cooperation as a betrayal to the Palestinian cause.

With Trump’s slap to the Palestinian leadership, nothing is left for the latter to justify its existence.

The growing disappointment and resentment also has a wider context rooted in the aftermath of the Oslo agreement between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in 1993.

Now, 20 years after that agreement ostensibly aimed at bringing about a Palestinian state was signed, Abbas’s rule does not exceed but over a few Bantustans in the West Bank.

The Jerusalem cause, the people of Gaza, Palestinian refugees past and present, and Palestinian citizens in Israel who face widespread and systemic discrimination are outside his reach and interests.

By neglecting this interlinked mosaic of suffering and oppression, Abbas as the head of the PLO, has lost any legitimacy among them.

An opposition in fear 

However the growing resentment and opposition, has yet to culminate in a serious demand to dissolve the PA.

It is clear that the voices critical of the PA are largely outside Palestine rather than inside, in particular not in the heavily controlled and securitised West Bank. There are at least three reasons why people fear the dissolution of the PA.

The first issue is the economy. In the framework of the Oslo accords and its economic annex, the Paris Protocol, any seeds for building a self-sufficient Palestinian economy were deliberately sabotaged.

Palestinian society was dominated by neo-liberal economic policies instituted by the PA and supported by the donor countries. This included a liberal trade system, empowering the private sector while ignoring the need for a self-sufficient society, and creating the framework of “development,” ironically under the full control of the Israeli occupation.

As a result, 20 years later, there's an absence of a productive society, and the emergence of a consumerist one. 

Most of the private sector consists of trade and only a small portion is manufacturing (mostly family enterprises), and agriculture — once a strong pillar of the Palestinian society — and other forms of Palestine's production base, have been destroyed or lost. Within this economic context and high unemployment rates, the PA has become a major employer. 

According to the World Bank, about 200,000 Palestinians are employed by the PA and local authorities. That is about 30 percent of the workforce in the occupied territories.

This means that the collapse of the PA would result in the immediate impoverishment of about a million Palestinians (If we count the families of the employees), let alone the tens of thousands of families that depend on PA or donor social allowances.

Additionally, neo-liberalism has led to the penetration of foreign funding and the creation of an "NGO-isation process", where Palestinian civil society and grassroots movements have moved from focusing on liberation to focusing on “development” as if they were operating in a normal state. 

The struggle has been co-opted by donors that too often dictate to Palestinians their agendas and priorities. Hence, an independent grassroots movement that relies on social solidarity has been replaced with a civil society that is fully dependent on foreign money.

As such, just as the Oslo agreement has been used to help Israel destroy any possibility for peace, it has also ensured the erasure of an autonomous economy and social solidarity structures. 

The Palestinians, who in the first Intifada were able to hold frequent economic strikes as a method of protest and create social and economic alternatives to survive under curfews are now at the mercy of PA salaries, EU handouts and foreign aid - all of which come with strings attached.

The second is security. The famous cliche by Arab leaders after the recent revolutions “it is either me or the chaos” has also been used by the PA leadership, directly and indirectly.

They have instrumentalised the second intifada, and the so-called “security chaos” that followed as a bogeyman to frighten people about the consequences of their absence.

Finally, in the absence of an appealing alternative, people are afraid of who may potentially succeed Abbas.

Such a prospect is also being discussed within Fatah itself and there are several pretenders for the top job. None of them represent anything other than the continuation of the status quo pioneered by former chief of the PLO, Yasser Arafat in his later years and turned into an art form by Abbas. They will act as servants beholden to the interests of foreign powers and as the velvet glove to Israel’s iron fist.

Removing the velvet glove

Any challenge to the status quo comes with obstacles, but they are not deal breakers or impossible to overcome.

Any new approach must look into building an independent economy and strengthening the sense of social solidarity among Palestinians. Any support from the outside should focus on helping generate a self-sustaining economy.

At the same time, the Palestinian people must have a say over who represents them. This is the right of Palestinians in the diaspora and the refugee camps as much as it is the right of Palestinians in historic Palestine.

As for the security concerns, Palestinians have a rich tradition of self-organising, mobilising, building grassroots movements and establishing committees for mutual aid.

If these conditions are met, Palestinians will be able to overcome the barrier of the foreign aid that stands in the way of ridding the occupation, and most importantly, will have a stronger hand in refusing any leadership — old or new — that is not faithful to the aspirations for liberation, justice and right of return.

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