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The Palestinian Authority and the problem of reform under Israeli occupation

January 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm

By Dr. Mohsen Mohammed Saleh

Is real reform of the Palestinian Authority possible or can reform only ever be a matter of “dancing to the Israeli occupation’s tune”? Can the types of reform be split and classified in such a way that some administrative, economic, educational and social reforms are made, with the understanding that political and security reforms are much more difficult, if not impossible? Or will reform improve the image of Israel’s occupation and prolong its existence, which in itself would be a deviation from the prime objective for which the Palestinian Authority was established – namely the end of the occupation and not merely improving the status quo?

The problem of the Palestinian Authority and reform

The problem of the Palestinian Authority (PA) stems from the fact that it was established on the tenets of the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which the PA not only forfeited its right to the land occupied by Israel in 1948 but also made some fundamental errors, the most obvious of which are:

  • Solutions to the core Palestinian issues such as the refugees’ right of return, Jerusalem, the expansion of settlements, Palestinian sovereignty over their own land and finalising the borders of the Palestinian state were all postponed.
  • No binding mechanism or ultimatum was established to force Israel to withdraw from the 1967 Occupied Territories or to resolve any of the core Palestinian issues.
  • The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO, and the Palestinian Authority) suspended the Palestinian people’s right to resist Israel’s occupation, renounced “terrorism” and bound itself to resolves its issues with Israel through peaceful means alone.
  • Many other political, economic, and security agreements and measures, which strengthened Israel’s hegemony, were established upon the tenets of the Oslo Accords. Furthermore, none of these later agreements provided any real basis for independence or laid the groundwork for creating a safe and stable environment in which the Authority could develop itself and its organizations in an effort to establish the Palestinian state.
  • The “dirty work” relating to crushing any Palestinian resistance to the occupation, as well as tax collection and municipal and social welfare were thrown upon the PA. Moreover, Israel could penalise the Authority for any apparent negligence in fulfilling these commitments.

In short, the way in which the Palestinian Authority was established looked more like a “trap” than a solution; the route it took was more akin to wandering aimlessly than walking naturally and logically towards independence. The late Edward Said, an outstanding intellectual, said that by signing the Oslo Accords Yasser Arafat “lured his people into a trap that has no escape”.

Consequently, the problem lies in the “rules of the game”, which are controlled completely by the Israelis. The Palestinians must manage their daily lives, economic affairs, imports and exports, and external relationships through the narrow window that Israel provides. The current situation resembles a group of prisoners who have been assigned a warden to manage their daily affairs and this warden can make their lives even more miserable if they do not comply with his rules.

The aggravation of the problem and the need for reform

The PLO believed that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority could be its chance to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 Occupied Territories. This idea seemed reasonable to the PLO as it understood that the permanent status issues would be resolved within 5 years of Oslo; the PLO could establish the infrastructure of the new Palestinian state within that period. However, events unfolded in a manner that ruined this dream and prevented sustainable reform. Below are the most pertinent facts about this:

  • It is Israel (not the PLO) that has imposed its own state of affairs on the ground and put into practice its Judaization plans and the construction of settlements; it is this strategy which has made the negotiation process endless. For example, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has multiplied from 180,000 in 1993 to 540,000 at the onset of 2010. Moreover, rapid and wide-range operations to Judaize Jerusalem and efface its Arab character are ongoing. At the same time, the Israeli Separation Wall has been built at the expense of yet more Palestinian land and destroying the Palestinian social fabric.
  • Fatah, which led the PLO, the Palestinian Authority and the peace process with Israel, found itself alone facing widespread opposition from many other Palestinian factions, the most notable being Hamas. Fatah had established the PA before any real efforts to “put the Palestinian house in order” were exercised. As a result, PA institutions were staffed mainly by members of Fatah and its supporters, not to mention shameless opportunists.

    Patronage, purchasing loyalties, administrative and financial corruption, and the emergence of a new class of bureaucrats, old revolutionaries and VIPs – who took advantage of the new state of affairs to serve their vested interests   have all spread malignantly throughout the ministries and institutions of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, political, security and administrative measures have been put in place to exclude the most competent candidates for positions if they are loyal to dissident factions (especially the Islamists).

  • There was a dramatic “malignant swelling” of the Palestinian security services. Apart from the fact that the majority of its commanders and recruits were members of or loyal to a single Palestinian faction, namely Fatah, so many were recruited that their ratio to the local population is the highest in the world. In the area “governed” by the Palestinian Authority, there is 1 police officer for every 84 civilians; in London, for example, there is 1 police officer for every 3,200 people. The bigger problem, however, was the role that these security forces had to play – willingly or unwillingly – in crushing the Palestinian resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation and hunting down dissenting elements, in compliance with the Oslo Accords.
  • The economy in areas under the Palestinian Authority has suffered from major structural problems, primarily due the ongoing Israeli occupation and its ability to:

– enforce blockades and closures;
– destroy infrastructure;
– expropriate land;
– lay waste to crops;
– establish permanent and mobile checkpoints;
– block imports and exports; 
– deprive factories of raw materials;
– prevent businesses from marketing their goods, and destroy them if Israel deems it appropriate to do so; and
– control all movement of finance, labour and human resources, etc.

As for the Authority’s budget, an average of 50-55% comes from donor countries; the European Union and the United States are the largest contributors. The peace agreements gave Israel the exclusive right to collect Palestinian customs duties and deliver them to the PA only after performing what is known as “revenue clearance”. This forms 30-35% of the Authority’s budget. In other words, 80% of the Palestinian Authority’s budget is at the mercy of the political whims of Israel, the US and the EU, all of whom demand strict political and security concessions from anyone aspiring to PA leadership.

Israel has been able to link the Palestinian economy to its own, with 85% of Palestinian exports going to the occupying power; 70% of Palestinian imports are from Israel. The PA itself has suffered from widespread corruption in its ministries and institutions, and a “consumerist” relationship based on patronage and favouritism has been established between the Authority and its citizens. Much has been written about this; suffice to say that the May 1997 report issued by the Palestinian Legislative Council’s (PLC) Monitoring Committee (at that time led by Fatah) stated that financial corruption within the PA led to the loss of more than $326m (out of a total budget of about $1500m). On the basis of that report, the PLC passed a vote of no-confidence in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority by56 votes to 1. There is little solid evidence to suggest that this situation has improved since 1997.
When the issue of reforming the Palestinian Authority was raised in 2003 and given Israeli and American support, reform efforts focused on reducing the authority of President Arafat due to his support for the Second Intifada (uprising) through creating the position of prime minister; reforms of the security forces were also mooted so that they would be able to fulfil the security commitments of the peace agreement and crack down on resistance elements. Economic reform was aimed at improving economic performance and providing a reasonable level of services after corruption and laxity had exceeded “acceptable” (but to whom?) bounds. However, none of the major structural problems related to Israel’s occupation have ever been solved.

Salam Fayyad’s government and reform

Salam Fayyad has had a great opportunity to realise his vision for reform ever since he was appointed (with Israeli and US support) Prime Minister of the Palestinian government in Ramallah in mid-June 2007. He built his vision around a strict implementation of the “Road Map” and the concessions of the peace settlement, starting with the commitments to Israel’s security, in an effort to attain cooperation from Israel; this is supposed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In August 2009, Fayyad revealed his government’s two-year plan to establish the institutions of the independent Palestinian state. This plan included major projects such as an airport and railway, securing energy and water resources, improving housing, education and agriculture, encouraging investments, and enhancing the performance of the security forces.

In response to accusations that his plans were consistent with the “economic peace” envisaged by his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu (also known as “luxury under the occupation”), Fayyad said that his plan is integrated and developmental in nature and that it aims at ending the occupation, not strengthening it. However, Fayyad’s problem is that he deals with an Israeli side which demands full concessions from Palestinians but does not commit to anything in return. Such frustration on the part of the PA and its leaders is obvious as Israel’s Judaization programme and settlement expansion continues, hundreds of barricades and roadblocks are still in place, and many restrictions are placed upon Palestinian imports and exports and the movement of funds, etc. Moreover, Fayyad’s government has paid a heavy political price because it has committed itself to cracking down on Hamas and other Palestinian factions as well as neutralising the role of the legislative assembly. In fact, the survival of the Fayyad government is contingent upon the current Palestinian political divide and the disagreement over a unified Palestinian national platform.

Hamas, reform and change

In the initial few years of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas was not convinced that any legislative or political action through the PA was worthwhile, so it boycotted the 1996 elections. Nevertheless, a number of events persuaded that the PLO could be reformed: the end of the Second Intifada, the death of Arafat and the election of Mahmud Abbas as PA President, as well as the signing of the Cairo Agreement opened the doors for such reform and municipal and parliamentary elections. Hamas, the popularity of which had soared in the interim, felt that the next concession to be made by the PA would be the targeting and crushing of the Palestinian resistance. By participating in the elections, Hamas felt that it would have an important platform to slow this plan and strengthen the Palestinian position with regard to the peace agreement. Hamas also believed that defending the interests of Palestinian citizens through confronting administrative and financial corruption coincided with most of the Islamic Resistance Movement’s provisional goals.

Although participating in the elections was not supported unanimously within Hamas, its candidates took part under the banner of “Reform and Change”. After achieving a surprising victory in the elections (declared free and fair by international observers) and leading the 10th and 11th Palestinian governments, Hamas realised that it is very hard – if not impossible – to bring about real reform without making grave concessions. Moreover, Hamas realised that by entering the political process, it was not given the opportunity to promote real reform; rather, it was subject to the conditions of the Oslo Accords. In other words, Hamas could not bring forth any economic, administrative or security reforms without making huge political concessions (namely, the Quartet conditions), which would, quite literally, strip the movement of its identity and goals. When Hamas tried to alter the “rules of the game” and free itself from the straitjacket of the Oslo conditions, it was met with a suffocating blockade, the arrest of its members of parliament and the banning of its programmes and activities.

What is clear from the experience of the years since Hamas won the election is that whoever wants to make real reform under the occupation must “dance to Israel’s tune”. The reform process – despite its low probability of success – is linked inexorably to paying heavy political concessions to the Israelis, which are far too costly for any genuine Palestinian resistance group to pay.

It can be argued that Hamas was successful in seizing political legitimacy just as it seized revolutionary legitimacy during the Aqsa Intifada. Not only that, it was successful in exposing the grim (for Palestinians) nature of the Oslo Accords and was able to run the Gaza Strip according to its own manifesto, without making any political concessions to Israel or the West. However, the ongoing blockade of Gaza, Palestinian political and geographical disunity, and the tremendous suffering of Hamas supporters in the West Bank all seem to be prices the true cost of which were unclear when Hamas embarked on its political path and led the PA government.

If there is ever going to be national reconciliation and a unified peace undertaking in the near future, then Hamas must disclose its political platform under the auspices of new parliamentary elections; it must explain how it will deal with the expected concessions required from whoever wins or loses the elections; and it must describe how it plans to realise its manifesto which calls for reform and change, especially in the West Bank, where no reform or change can take place except within the boundaries of the Oslo Accords. Alternatively, could affirmation of its political legitimacy and popular support be all that Hamas needs to do?

What is important now is putting the Palestinian house in order, defining its priorities in accordance with the bigger picture, and then revisiting and re-evaluating the role that the Palestinian Authority must play; that is, if it is decided that there is any real benefit from its existence.

The original Arabic article appeared on Al Jazeera net on 24/11/2010
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 18/12/2010

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.