After the most recent round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas ended in May following 11 days of cross-border warfare, Israeli experts and policymakers suddenly rediscovered the Palestinian Authority.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz suggested that Gaza’s reconstruction be coordinated via the PA – a practice long abandoned by the government, while many Israeli experts and decision-makers suggested that since outgoing Netanyahu’s doctrine of containing Hamas has failed, Israel should reevaluate and strengthen its relations with Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
Soon after the inauguration of the Bennett-Lapid government on June 13, Issawi Frej, the new minister for regional cooperation, ordered the reestablishment of the Joint Economic Committee with the PA, one of 26 such panels that were created following the signing of the Oslo Accords.
This sudden surge of goodwill in Israel coincided with dramatic developments in the internal political arena in the Palestinian Authority.
Already unpopular, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ regime was significantly weakened by three major events: his cancellation of parliamentary and presidential elections set for May and July this year, respectively; May’s violence between Israel and Hamas; and the June 24 killing of Hebron-based political activist Nizar Banat at the hands of Palestinian security forces.
The PA is getting weaker by the minute and it is happening just when Israeli politicians are finally ready for rapprochement.
After years of neglect, during which Netanyahu told Israelis that the Palestinians do not matter anymore, not to the world and not even to the Arabs, Israel now has to deal with an explosive Gaza that remains under Hamas control and a no less explosive West Bank, where demonstrators chant, “Down with the regime” and demand the resignation of the 85-year-old Abbas.
Not many Israelis realize how fragile the current situation in the West Bank is, and how much it has changed during the last 12 years of internal and external stalemate.
After using tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators, the PA did what every authoritarian regime does time and again in an attempt to quell the protests: it banned them, and yet the atmosphere in West Bank cities remains highly charged and unstable.
Mohammed Daraghmeh, bureau chief at the Asharq News TV channel’s office in Ramallah, says the Palestinians will not accept this restriction on demonstrations.
“Public protest is in our genes; we are used to protesting against Israel, the US, the Arabs, the PA, and now they demand that we get a permit in order to organize a protest,” he says.
At the same time, Daraghmeh cautions about the direction of the protests.
“They say: ‘Down with President Abbas,’ but what if Abbas is gone today, what if the current political system is gone? The thing is that we cannot throw away this system, we can only fix it. There are no courts, no parliament, no functioning political parties – no alternative. Let’s have a humble goal: to achieve human rights, to stop political detentions and arrests,” he says.
During the last few days, the word “elections” has been heard again in Palestinian media, especially after former prime minister Salam Fayyad’s rare visit to the Gaza Strip.
A source in Ramallah, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, says the current situation is a direct result of Abbas’ cancellation of long-overdue elections.
“No one believed that he did it because of Palestinians in East Jerusalem” being prevented from voting there by Israel, the source says.
“There are actually very few voters there, just a few thousand who exercise their voting rights. People understand that the elections were canceled because Fatah [Abbas’ party] was fragmented and weak, and Hamas could take advantage. And now the PA is using excessive force in order to break down the protests, and people accuse it of being Israel’s policeman.”
Security cooperation between Israel and the PA was halted last year when Netanyahu was considering a move to annex parts of the West Bank, but during the last few months the parties resumed the cooperation, despite harsh criticism from Hamas and anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movements and organizations.
Today, when the word on the street is that the PA is using Israeli-supplied tear-gas canisters against the protesters, the rage aimed at the PA and its security apparatus continues to swell.
This situation likely will affect the relations between Israel and the PA.
Daraghmeh believes the ties will actually grow closer.
“The Palestinian Authority is very weak. Due to its weakness, it will have to rely on Israel and the Arab countries. It will continue to fulfill its duty of Israeli [security] contractor in the West Bank and, at the end of the day, when Abbas goes Fatah will choose somebody else, while Hamas will consolidate its power in Gaza. The deadlock will continue,” he says.
Another source in Ramallah, who is close to the PA security agencies, says that while the situation remains tense and fragile because of the authoritarian violence, for now Hamas will not be able to realize its goals in the West Bank.
In the absence of serious political reform and state institution-building (there were recent rumors regarding a possible shuffle in the PA cabinet, but no more than that), political instability will remain a permanent feature of life in the West Bank, even if the protests eventually lose their momentum.
The PA will most likely maintain its current coordination with the Israeli army and other security agencies. In the best-case scenario the PA will maintain the status quo, and not much more than that.
The national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that could open the road to elections remains a distant and unachievable fantasy, just as it always was, and the dissatisfaction on the Palestinian street – aimed at both Israel and Abbas – will inevitably grow.
Israel, which controls the Palestinian economy, might slightly improve the situation through goodwill measures aimed at alleviating the economic pressure, such as letting more Jordanian goods be imported into the West Bank or allowing the construction of new residential quarters.
If it would have acted earlier and done these things years ago, the situation on the ground in PA might be very different today.
Reprinted courtesy of The Media Line