Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine by Dana El Kurd

Over the past year, as countries across the Middle East and the Arab world have witnessed wide-scale anti-regime uprisings, some of which have resulted in an increasingly violent backlash from security forces and regime supporters, Palestine has remained conspicuously quiet. To be sure, West Bank Palestinians share many of the same grievances that protesters in Lebanon, Iraq, and Algeria have articulated: a fully corrupt and unaccountable leadership that tolerates no internal criticism, security forces that repress dissidents with extreme force, and a worsening economic situation characterized by high unemployment, particularly for educated youth. Yet there has not been an equivalent widespread movement among Palestinians to protest and challenge these conditions. Indeed, political mobilization generally remains low in the West Bank.

This was not always the case. In her new book, Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine, Dana El Kurd—a researcher at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies—reminds us that prior to the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were highly mobilized. Many participated in local organizations both to improve their own communities and to protest the ongoing Israeli occupation. Although many groups were associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), they operated independently and were “highly responsive to their members” (p. 2). During the first intifada, the strength of a grassroots and democratic civil society sustained a “diffuse, mostly non-violent uprising” and leaders “often reacted to popular pressure in order to achieve a high degree of participation in the activities of their groups” (p. 8). Palestinians were unified around a set of shared political objectives, but the diversity of local organizations gave them a “degree of independence, flexibility, and dynamism” (p. 7).

More than 20 years later, Palestinians in the West Bank are more polarized and less mobilized than ever before. Local grassroots organizing has disappeared as the Palestinian Authority (PA) has consolidated its power. In addition, a large percentage of the population has come to depend on the PA for salaries and services. Since the Fatah-Hamas split following the 2006 legislative elections, opposition to the PA among West Bank Palestinians has been silenced “either by cooptation into the PA’s patronage networks or through direct repression” (p. 12). The Israeli government, which openly advocates for annexing large parts of the West Bank, has contracted with the PA to carry out the dirty work of maintaining the occupation; those imprisoned by PA forces are “subject to violent punishments, often in coordination with the Israeli occupation” (p. 76).

This historical trajectory informs the central question of El Kurd’s book: how did this process of polarization and demobilization take place, particularly when “years of Israeli occupation had failed to do the same thing?” (p. 3). Authoritarianism under the PA, she argues, has been effective because the PA is an indigenous regime that has been able to “utilize its ties within society” to infiltrate opposition movements and carry out covert repressive measures (p. 3). These tactics have fragmented the Palestinian political sphere, leading to reduced levels of trust among the population of the West Bank. And this decline in “social cohesion,” in turn, has meant that it is only more difficult for Palestinians to mobilize collectively against the PA’s authoritarian policies.

According to El Kurd, the international community—and the United States in particular—bears responsibility for helping to create and cement these authoritarian conditions. She argues that international intervention in the Palestinian state-building process, which often involved the use of conditional aid and diplomatic pressure, created a “disjuncture” between the PA and Palestinian society. In other words, the PA leadership became “insulated from its domestic constituency, consumed with addressing international pressures rather than negotiating with Palestinian society” (p. 4). Because the international community prioritized Israeli security and, after Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory, feared the “outcome of the actual democratic process” (p. 31), it supported the PA. The United States’ role in training and funding the PA’s security forces laid the groundwork for authoritarian repression in the West Bank.

Over the course of five chapters, El Kurd lays out a clear and powerful argument that links international involvement in Palestine to increased political polarization and diminished social cohesion, leading to a decline in political mobilization. This linkage marks her intervention in the literature on international aid and authoritarianism: through interviews and surveys of Palestinians from across the West Bank, she illuminates the ways in which internationally backed authoritarianism not only “increas[es] individual costs” of political protest, but “fundamentally alter[s] interactions at a societal level” (p. 21).

In the first chapter, El Kurd constructs a theoretical framework based on previous scholarship on authoritarianism and international intervention. The key element of this framework is the principal-agent theory—the idea that “international patrons can disrupt the ‘feedback loop’” between a government (the agent) and its constituents (the principal) (p. 28). In a democratic society, the governing agent derives its authority from a single principal—the people under its control. International patronage, however, creates a divergence between the government and the people, as the government becomes beholden to a second, stronger principal.

The second chapter affirms the existence of a principal-agent paradigm in Palestine, where the United States, as the largest bilateral donor to the PA, can dictate internal PA political affairs and has helped to “insulate” the PA from public opinion (p. 15).  El Kurd interviews members of the PA’s Ministry of the Interior, the police force, and the PLO executive committee, who attest that the PA is held as a “‘hostage’” to the political agenda of its American patrons (p. 62). She also shows that international involvement has created a split among Palestinians over their preferences for democracy and political accountability. For Palestinian political elites and members of the PA bureaucracy who depend on the government for their livelihoods, US patronage leads them to “prioritize stability and express little support for democracy and accountability overall” (p. 66). For Palestinians unconnected to the PA, El Kurd finds that the role of international involvement has no impact. In other words, she demonstrates that US patronage has not only made political elites unaccountable to the general public but has fragmented Palestinian society on the very question of political accountability.

The third chapter explores the ways in which the PA’s authoritarian policies breed political polarization and limit the possibility of collective action. The PA pursues a two-pronged strategy against opposition to its rule: it co-opts potential opposition by employing a large percentage of the Palestinian population, and it represses the remaining opposition—especially Islamist political parties—through a vast police and surveillance apparatus, legal restrictions, and violent crackdowns. El Kurd argues that PA repression has generated a greater degree of polarization than co-optation because it creates “divisions between those who are persecuted and those who are not.” Within a hostile, repressive political environment, these divisions mean that “people cannot be sure of [sic] whom to trust and where the interests of others actually lie” (p. 73). El Kurd finds this widespread sense of “deep mistrust and fragmentation” in interviews with students at Birzeit University; no matter their political affiliations, they “referred to their political opponents as ‘traitors’ and often questioned their true intentions” (p. 67). The extent of this intra-Palestinian fragmentation points to the vicious cycle of authoritarian rule: government repression leads to heightened polarization, which in turn effectively closes off any possibility of mounting a broad-based, unified challenge to the governing regime.

In fact, El Kurd shows that the extent of PA control is directly linked to political mobilization. The fourth chapter provides evidence for a particularly counterintuitive claim: that “mobilization has declined systematically in places where the PA has more direct control, even though Palestinians in those areas are more densely populated [sic] and have greater access to resources” (p. 16). The majority of Palestinians live in Area A of the West Bank—under the full authority of the PA—and as El Kurd notes, prior to the creation of the PA, this area maintained the highest levels of political mobilization simply due to its relative population size. However, since 2007, political mobilization in Areas B and C has far surpassed that in Area A; this is despite the fact that there are more Palestinians in Area A than in B or C, and that all three face similar levels of repression and intrusion from the Israeli occupation. Conversely, the lack of a PA presence has also allowed protest movements to thrive. El Kurd observes that East Jerusalem, in particular, has witnessed a revival of family networks and informal institutions for political organization, despite the fact that Palestinians there are isolated from the West Bank and live under Israeli jurisdiction.

In the fifth chapter, El Kurd ventures beyond Palestine to show the broader applicability of her theory of international intervention and its effects on domestic polarization, mobilization, and social cohesion. Taking Iraqi Kurdistan and Bahrain as two additional case studies, she argues that American intervention has “led to negative repercussions for state-society relations and levels of authoritarianism” across the “state sovereignty spectrum,” from the occupied West Bank, to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, to the fully sovereign state of Bahrain (p. 135).

These findings have critical implications for our understanding of authoritarianism across the entire Arab world, a region that continues to be a highly contested arena for a variety of international actors that seek to extend control and influence beyond their borders. The recent revival of widespread political mobilization in places such as Lebanon—whose domestic politics have been shaped by external powers, and which until recently were considered archetypal examples of polarization and sectarianism—is thus all the more remarkable. In Lebanon, shared grievances that span across traditional political and sectarian divisions have served as a foundation for rebuilding social cohesion and sparking mobilization. And while the West Bank has not witnessed similar levels of mobilization, El Kurd does note some promising bright spots. West Bank Palestinian youth, who are largely “unconnected to existing institutions and power structures,” may be willing to challenge the PA’s political hegemony (p. 146).

So, too, may the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are engaged in political activism and civil society work, “present alternative institutions and strategies to the role of the PA” (p. 148). Palestinian women from across historic Palestine who have traditionally been marginalized in political spaces have also recently launched an initiative that aims to create a new, feminist alternative to mainstream Palestinian politics, based on shared experiences of oppression. Although there is much work still to be done, these movements offer possibilities for imagining how Palestinians might extricate themselves from decades of inept authoritarian governance and political fragmentation, choose a democratically accountable leadership, and present a unified front to challenge ongoing Israeli occupation.