The international community, through the Oslo Accords, has created an intricate web of terminology that points towards a permanently stalled state-building process. In their book, The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank: The Theatrics of Woeful Statecraft (Routledge, 2019), Michelle Pace and Somdeep Sen expose what lies beneath the façade coined as the “State of Palestine”, a term which the Palestinian Authority covets and disseminates to validate its own role in the political process.
Pace and Sen depart from the premise that the “imagined state” is a means of subversion that works against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories. “The PA has persisted as an institution that acts like a state but concurrently undermines the Palestinian struggle for sovereign statehood.”
Using theatre as a metaphor for the duplicity determining the absence of Palestinian statehood, Pace and Sen point out inconsistencies in the Oslo Accords which are overlooked, notably the fact that there is no explicit reference to a Palestinian state as a result of negotiations. The text, the authors note, uses the term “interim self-governance”, which impedes independence and curtails the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle. The latter, they say, “aspires for the real state but remains burdened by the task of performing the state in its limited form.”
The performance of the state is determined by various stakeholders, all of which, as the authors’ research shows, are aware that their political and financial investment is part of the theatrics enabling the PA in “performing a state that does not exist”. While the PA orchestrates these details, in accordance with the internationally-determined script and also through its role as “a reflection of the colonial power relations”, the Palestinian people have been coerced into the duplicity, whether or not they are in agreement with the PA’s authoritarianism.
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The authors distinguish rigorously between different levels of political coercion. Their interviews with international diplomats and officials, as well as representatives from Palestinian non-governmental organisations (NGOs), activists and former Palestinian political prisoners illustrate the dynamics of a “substantial political act” which has more to do with international impositions than the Palestinian national struggle. The course has been determined externally; the EU, for example, is revealed to affirm its own identity in the theatrics of state-building as opposed to politically empowering Palestinians towards statehood. All actors are aware of the deception, prompting Pace and Sen to state, “if they cease the performance, the fallacy of the identity they are performing will be revealed.”
In Palestine, the ramifications of such political theatrics are experienced by the people under PA rule. Donor investment is largely geared towards security coordination to aid the PA in quashing any civil mobilisation against Israel. The result has been a normalisation of the PA’s authoritarianism and violence, even as it is “unable to exercise even the most elementary forms of statecraft.” Simulating statecraft at an international and local level brings a dearth of contradictions. Internationally, the PA’s standing is largely symbolic as it lacks a state to speak of. This, the authors assert, is evidenced by the rhetoric used by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, which emphasises Israel’s military occupation.
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Coercion and awareness among all political and civilian actors are in constant conflict. Many of the interviewees express the duplicity of serving a non-existent state as well as fulfilling a role that facilitates the PA’s state performance. No entity is exempted from forming part of the script decided by the international community. The book shows how NGOs are impacted by state building without culminating in a state. Limitations include the restrictions on disrupting the state-building imitation, which incorporates a multitude of violations that, for the most part, the PA is able to execute with absolute impunity.
While varying as to what degree NGOs incorporate the Oslo framework and its obligations, the authors’ research and interviews show that there is a lack of independence when it comes to human rights and humanitarian endeavours. The neoliberal framework from which donors operate promotes and expects allegiances to Oslo and the PA. Thus, while NGOs express opposition or, in the case of Addameer according to Pace and Sen, passivity, with regard to PA violations, this does not constitute “an escape from the PA’s theatrical machinery.”
Critiquing the humanitarian project within state-building, therefore, is imperative. Pace and Sen illustrate how the internalisation of Oslo masks abuses with a veneer that applies the language of human rights while refusing or evading the practice for several reasons. The “common enemy”, with reference to Israel, is one reason interviewees gave to justify their inaction against PA violations. However, the book shows that the Oslo Accords were designed to reap such justifications and impunity. The entire structure consolidated by the Oslo framework resulted in an intricate web where, despite the obvious awareness of complicity, it is still possible to isolate the political actors depending on the required opportunism, strategy or allegiance.
Ultimately, it is the PA that has benefited the most in Palestine, while Palestinians have suffered political, economic and social consequences. While public service employees have navigated necessity and morality, and NGOs contend with human rights discourse and the failure to protect human rights, the Palestinian people themselves have suffered the most as unwilling participants in state theatrics.
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Speaking of Palestinians, the authors assert, “Albeit unwillingly, they also become key actors in the theatrics of the state as their opposition serves as an opportunity for the PA to impress on the dominance of the statist narrative.” PA dominance is expressed through violence and torture under the pretext of security which, Pace and Sen say, have eroded not only the prospects for Palestinians’ liberation, but also their own personal liberty within the imagined state.
Perhaps the greatest weapon handed to the PA through the Oslo Accords is the waiting game, which translates into a hierarchy of priorities that only generate additional impunity and not just from the more visible actors. Former political prisoners tortured by the PA are also subdued by the same diplomatic rhetoric of purported unity. “The main enemy is Israel,” one told the authors, “and this is not the time to criticise Palestinians. We have to focus on Israel. Everything else we just have to keep quiet and forget about.”
The quote vindicates succinctly the authors’ research. Questioning the entire structure that resulted in the PA’s authoritarian rule and the absence of a state must not be shunned while highlighting Israel’s colonial violence. Prioritising one over the other is resulting in the convenient fragmentation of collusion, when the study clearly shows that each political actor is actively impeding Palestinian liberation from Israel’s settler-colonialism.