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Whose side is the PA on?

September 27, 2022 at 10:03 am

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas addresses during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at UN Headquarters in New York, United States on September 23, 2022. [Palestinian Presidency – Anadolu Agency]

The arrest of a couple of prominent Palestinian activists, one of whom was Musab Shtayyeh, by Palestinian Authority police on 20 September was not the first time that the notorious Preventive Security Service (PSS) has arrested someone who is wanted by Israel. The PSS is largely linked to the routine arrest and torture of Palestinians who are active against the Israeli occupation.

Several Palestinians have died as a result of PSS violence, the latest being Nizar Banat who was tortured to death on 24 June last year. The killing of Banat ignited a popular revolt against the PA across occupied Palestine.

For years, various Palestinian and international human rights groups have criticised the PA’s violence against dissenting Palestinian voices, quite often within the same human rights reports critical of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. The de facto Hamas government in Gaza also has to take its fair share of blame in terms of violence against dissenters.

In its January 2022 World Report, Human Rights Watch said that, “The Palestinian Authority (PA) manages affairs in parts of the West Bank, where it systematically arrests arbitrarily and tortures dissidents.” This was neither the first nor the last time that a human rights group has made such an accusation.

The link between Israeli and Palestinian violence targeting political dissidents and activists is equally clear to most Palestinians, even though some may at one point have believed that the PA’s role is to serve as a transition between their national liberation project and full independence and sovereignty on the ground. Nearly thirty years after the formation of the PA, though, such a notion has proved to be wishful thinking. Not only has the PA failed to usher in the coveted independent State of Palestine, but it has also morphed into a massively corrupt institution whose existence more or less serves the interests of a small class of Palestinian politicians and business people; in Palestine, they are largely one and the same group.

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PA corruption and violence aside, what continues to irk most Palestinians is that the authority, with time, has become another manifestation of the Israeli occupation, curtailing Palestinian freedom of expression and carrying out arrests on behalf of the occupation security services. Sadly, many of those arrested by the Israeli military in the West Bank have experienced arrest by PA goons as well.

Riots in Nablus following Shtayyeh’s arrest were reminiscent of the riots against Israeli occupation forces in the northern West Bank city and elsewhere in occupied Palestine. Unlike previous confrontations between Palestinians and PA police — following the killing of Banat, for example — this time the violence was widespread, and involved protesters from all Palestinian political groups, including the ruling Fatah faction.

Perhaps unaware of the massive collective psychological shift that has taken place in Palestine in recent years, the PA was desperate to contain the violence. Subsequently, a committee that represents united Palestinian factions in Nablus declared on 21 September that it had agreed a “truce” with PA security forces in the city. The committee, which includes prominent Palestinian figures, told Associated Press and other media that the agreement restricts any future arrests of Palestinians in Nablus to the condition that the individual must be implicated in breaking Palestinian, not Israeli, law. That provision alone implies a tacit admission by the PA that the arrest of Shtayyeh and Ameed Tbaileh was motivated by an Israeli, not a Palestinian agenda.

But why would the PA bow down so quickly to pressure from ordinary Palestinians on the street? The answer lies in the changing political mood in Palestine.

In considering this matter it must be stated that resentment of the PA has been brewing for years. One opinion poll after another has indicated the low regard that most Palestinians have of their leadership, of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and particularly of the PA’s “security coordination” with Israel.

Moreover, the torture and death of political dissident Banat last year erased whatever patience Palestinians had with regard to the leadership. Banat’s death demonstrated that the PA is not an ally of the people, but a threat to the people.

It also has to be said that the Unity Intifada of May 2021 has emboldened many segments of society across occupied Palestine. For the first time in years, Palestinians have felt united around a single slogan and are no longer hostage to the geography of politics and factions. A new generation of young Palestinians has advanced the conversation beyond Abbas, the PA and their endless and ineffectual political rhetoric.

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Finally, armed struggle in the West Bank has been growing so rapidly that the Israeli army Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, claimed on 6 September that since March, around 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank and that, allegedly, hundreds of attacks against the Israeli military have been thwarted.

In fact, evidence of an armed intifada is growing in the Jenin and Nablus regions. What is particularly interesting, and alarming from the Israeli and PA viewpoint, about the nature of the budding armed struggle, is that it is largely led by the military wing of the ruling Fatah party, in direct cooperation with Hamas and other Islamic and national military wings.

For example, on 9 August, the Israeli army assassinated Ibrahim Al-Nabulsi, a prominent Fatah military commander, along with two others. Not only did the PA do little to stop the Israeli military machine from conducting more such assassinations, but six weeks later it also arrested Shtayyeh, a close comrade of Nabulsi.

Interestingly, Shtayyeh is not a member of Fatah, but a commander within the Hamas military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades. Although Fatah and Hamas are meant to be intense political rivals, their political tussle seems to be of no relevance to military groups in the West Bank.

Unfortunately, more violence is likely to follow because Israel is determined to crush any armed intifada in the West Bank before it spreads across the occupied territories; there is a leadership transition looming within the PA due to Abbas’s old age; and unity is growing among Palestinians around the issue of resistance.

While the Israeli response to all of this can easily be gleaned from its legacy of violence, the PA’s future course of action will likely determine its relationship with Israel and its western supporters on the one hand, and with the Palestinian people on the other. The question has to be asked: whose side is the PA on?

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