The Palestinian Authority is more and more revealing its own complicity in Israeli occupation, argues Alex Snowdon
Palestinian resistance erupted in May, initially in east Jerusalem and rapidly spreading across the whole of historic Palestine. The 11-day Israeli assault on Gaza prompted an escalation of protests, peaking with the general strike on Tuesday 18 May, and to some extent protests have continued since the Gaza ceasefire.
However, a striking element in the recent upsurge is the role of the Palestinian Authority. It has not merely been weak and ineffectual but has actively repressed some Palestinian demonstrations in the occupied West Bank.
Perhaps the worst moment came with the arrest and death of Nizar Banat, a Palestinian activist, on 24 June. The 44-year-old died in custody of Palestinian security forces. Subsequent demonstrations over his death were violently attacked by security forces. No wonder an Electronic Intifada article in late June was headlined 'Palestinian Authority forces are Israel's foot soldiers'.
This was no aberration. It was in keeping with the PA's role in response to the uprising in May. A brief re-cap of what happened is useful here.
Resistance and repression
Threatened evictions of families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem - to make way for Jewish Israeli settlers - prompted demonstrations. The evictions were significant as part of the process of removing Palestinians from Jerusalem, but also symbolised the whole dynamic of dispossession that has characterised the Palestinian experience since at least 1948.
Israeli crackdowns on the protests prompted further street mobilisation in east Jerusalem. The storming of Al Aqsa (the third holiest site in Islam), with Israeli forces using tear gas and rubber bullets, was especially provocative and caused outrage. This generated widespread solidarity protests among Palestinian citizens of Israel and in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has a degree of authority (but in the context of Israel's military occupation).
The Israeli assault on Gaza, which killed over 200 people in just 11 days, fuelled a higher level of protest. Palestinians in Israel demonstrated on a scale rarely seen before - and were the driving force behind 18 May becoming a general strike day. Protests took place in many cities and towns in the West Bank, partly in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah and the Palestinians under attack in Gaza but also fuelled by West Bank Palestinians' own deep-seated grievances.
After the ceasefire was agreed, Israeli forces went on the offensive with a wave of repression against Palestinians, especially young protesters, in Israel. This was an attempt to punish Palestinian citizens of Israel for their unusual levels of militancy and to deter further action. In the West Bank, however, Israel has relied more on the role of Palestinian Authority forces to enforce its will.
Many Palestinians celebrated the setback for Israel in Gaza - where its military offensive was widely regarded as a strategic failure - and also celebrated a number of partial climbdowns forced upon Israel, such as a delay to the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. It was at one such public celebration in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, on 21 May that Palestinian student Tariq al-Khudairi was arrested by PA security forces.
The West Bank is divided into different areas - known as Area A, B and C - correlating to how much authority and control is delegated by the occupying power to the Palestinian Authority has. Ramallah is in Area A (the highest level of relative autonomy for the PA). This means that Israeli forces intervene directly less than in many other areas of the West Bank, largely leaving it to Palestinian security forces to deal with protests.
The PA's story about al-Khudairi was that he insulted the late Yasser Arafat, former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, through his chanting. This should not lead to arrest, but was in any case disputed by many eyewitnesses. There was widespread speculation that the arrest, and a number of other similar arrests, was on extremely tenuous grounds and was in fact politically motivated.
The politics of the situation is roughly as follows. The PA, dominated by the Fatah political faction, had seen its credibility and popularity fall during the popular upsurge in May. This was against a background of already being distrusted by large numbers of Palestinians, often being viewed as complicit in Israeli occupation. During the wave of protests the PA was perceived as offering no leadership to the struggle at best, actively repressing protests at worst.
Many Palestinians in the West Bank asked why there was a higher level of struggle among Palestinians inside Israel than there was in the West Bank. The protests that did take place - and they were numerous and sometimes large - were largely grassroots affairs, with the official leadership only endorsing them under pressure, if at all. Furthermore, Fatah's main rival Hamas saw its popularity grow as a result of its role in Gaza.
These events prompted a new bout of discussion and debate among Palestinians about the PA's security cooperation with Israel - always a highly contentious topic, but acutely so in this context. This cooperation - once referred to as a case of Israel 'outsourcing the occupation' to the PA - is rooted in the Oslo 'peace process' of the 1990s. That resulted in the formation of the Palestinian Authority to partially administer the West Bank within a framework of brutally repressive and unjust military occupation. This has meant that the PA has been deeply compromised since it was founded.
The PA's crackdown - symbolised by the high-profile arrest of al-Khudairi - was motivated by seeking to regain control after the upsurge of protest and by a desire to shift the narrative, characterising activists on thre ground as divisive troublemakers. There has subsequently been a cycle of protests and repression, with cases of torture and physical assault by security forces documented by lawyers and human rights groups.
The background to this is the worsening status and authority of the PA, as any realistic chance of a separate Palestinian state has been eroded. Any credibility it once had depended upon the viability of 'peace talks' and the notion that Israel might be sincerely committed to negotiations. That has been crushed under the weight of new settlement building and the belligerence of successive Israeli governments.
Barely any of the Palestinian protesters of recent months - whether in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Jerusalem or across the borders in Jordan and Lebanon - look to the PA for leadership. Nor do they regard 'cooperation' with Israel as either feasible or desirable. The PA's hope of an independent Palestinian state seems unrealistic and remote to these protesters, who have increasingly expressed demands that move beyond the 'two-states' impasse.
For two decades, most of the PA's influence has derived from the international aid it has received and its consequent role as a major employer in the West Bank: there are an estimated 80,000 personnel in the Palestinian security forces, plus tens of thousands of others work for the PA or in closely-related networks. Yet since 2013 there has been a cut in such funding of at least 50% (mainly due to Donald Trump's disregard for it during his term as US president).
It has also suffered a loss of authority due to yet again postponing elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (elections last took place in 2006). The PA has more and more come to be a hollow institution limited to the West Bank, lacking moral and political authority. A major traditional source of moral authority has been the PLO's revolutionary history - as embodiment of a heroic struggle for national liberation - but this has weakened the more that the PA has cooperated with the Israeli state.
What happens next? There are two closely-related phenomena. One is the internal contradictions of the PA, which grow ever more acute. The other is the popular pressure from grassroots Palestinian resistance, accompanied by broadening political horizons.
What remains to be seen is how these interact with each other. The potential collapse of the PA is often talked about, but there is also the matter of what new organisational forms the Palestinians can develop to take the struggle forward. It is a volatile situation and the repressive elite bureaucracy of the PA certainly isn't part of the solution.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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