Fending for Themselves: The Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority

On July 3, 2023, Israeli forces raided the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank, with a specific focus on the refugee camp that borders the municipality. The raid, which began at one in the morning and lasted almost two full days, was expansive, with drone strikes, armored bulldozers, and an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Israeli soldiers raiding the dense, civilian-inhabited area. This was among the deadliest raids in the West Bank since the Second Intifada (2000–2005), with 12 killed, hundreds injured, and incalculable destruction to infrastructure, including water and sewage facilities. The attack also marked a notable increase in the level and scope of violence used in the West Bank, including the deployment of airstrikes and multiple documented attacks on hospitals and ambulances—indisputably a war crime.

Jenin, part of the Oslo Accords-designated Area A (which makes up just about 18 percent of the West Bank) is purportedly under the full civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the governing entity that was also established in the Oslo process. So, too, are the other major Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Jericho. However, these are areas that the Israeli military raids with increasing regularity, including when civilians are shopping, traveling to and from work or school, or otherwise navigating the everyday activities of their lives—as happened in another recent raid in Nablus that killed 11 people.

Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that when PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 and has stayed in power ever since without holding elections, did not receive the warmest welcome when he arrived in Jenin via helicopter a week after the deadly raid. This was his first visit to the city since 2012. Several residents of the camp made their sentiments toward Abbas and the PA clear, with one individual asking, “When the Israeli Army was here, where was he? Why did he leave us to fend for ourselves?…Tomorrow we will replace the doors and windows and rebuild. But we wanted him to be with us from the beginning. What is the point of his visit?” Before Abbas’s visit, several officials affiliated with Fatah—the president’s political party—who went to the city were greeted with jeers and shouts of “get out, get out,” and were prevented from attending the funerals of those killed.

Indeed, Palestinian opinion today is largely against the PA and President Abbas. While the current role of the PA seems to be focused on its functionality as essentially a security subcontractor of the Israeli occupation at the behest of its western donors, it is easy to forget what else the PA does, and what it was created for in the first place.

The Palestinian Authority, A Relatively New Entity

Palestinians have been under some form of external governance for centuries, having been part of the Ottoman Empire, and then under the control of the British Mandate after the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced during the Nakba in 1948 upon the declaration of the State of Israel, significantly weakening the Palestinian polity. From 1948 to 1967, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were administered by Egypt and Jordan, respectively, and were thus subject to these two nations. Having no official governing body of their own, Palestinians loosely organized themselves into different groups, many of which came under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was officially established in 1964. In 1967, Palestinians experienced yet another blow during the Naksa, when Israel officially seized the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (as well as the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula) and the military occupation began. From 1967 through 1994, Israel cemented its control over Palestinian lands and people through its military occupation, including over water resources and the education system.

The Oslo Accords seemed to offer an opportunity for some form of Palestinian administration over institutions and services.

To some, the passage of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent establishment of the PA in 1994, initially seemed to offer a potential opportunity for some form of Palestinian administration over institutions and services. With the founding of the PA came the establishment of government ministries such as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Labor. Importantly, the PA was meant to serve as an interim government for a period of five years, after which Israel was supposed to transfer responsibilities to the Palestinians, culminating in the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, the resolution of unresolved final status issues such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, and the cessation of Israel’s legal obligations as an occupying power. Thus, the PA was never given full autonomy or control of any facet of Palestinian life, from the economy to the borders, to the use of aquifers under Palestinian lands. Many critics warned that handing over so much to supposedly “temporary” Israeli control would in fact result in a permanent state of occupation with a puppet Palestinian government, which is very much the system that currently exists in the occupied territories. Yet the PA continues to exist, and it retains partial responsibility for the functioning of some aspects of life for many—but not all—Palestinians.

The Duties of the PA

On the international stage, the PA has absorbed the role of the Palestine Liberation Organization and now serves as the official representative of the Palestinian people living in the occupied territories. However, this is complicated by the fact that Israel does not allow the PA to function in East Jerusalem, and by the division between Fatah (the dominant party of the PA) and Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza Strip since 2007. Further, the PA only has full civil and security control over Area A of the West Bank; in Area B, the PA only has civil control, with Israel retaining military control. And Area C, which constitutes about 60 percent of the West Bank, is fully controlled by Israel. Thus, even within its limited territory, the PA actually controls very little outside of the major Palestinian West Bank urban centers. Yet with that limited control comes certain duties and responsibilities that only a governing body can provide.

The occupied territories have one of the world’s highest ratios of security personnel to civilians.

Among the primary responsibilities of the PA is the maintenance of security forces, which takes up a full third of its budget. There are an estimated 83,000 security personnel in the occupied territories, leading to one of the world’s highest ratios of security personnel to civilians. However, the term “security” increasingly appears misleading, as the PA security forces do not secure Palestinians from the threat of Israeli military incursions or settler attacks. Instead, the role of these forces is apparently to uphold the so-called security cooperation between the PA and Israel, including sharing intelligence with the Israelis and even arresting Palestinians affiliated with militant groups or oppositional political parties, as well as those who publicly criticize the PA, including students, journalists, and activists. Many of those arrested report poor treatment and even torture under PA detention, and many are sent directly to Israeli jails where poor treatment is also reported. A well-known example of such brutality is the death in 2021 of Nizar Banat, a Palestinian activist who was critical of the PA, and who was arrested by PA security forces and so badly beaten that he died in detention.

In times of high tensions, Abbas often threatens to discontinue this security coordination; but these threats are seen as mere bluster. Indeed, it is this very security coordination that likely keeps much of the PA’s declining foreign aid flowing, and that is what justifies the existence of the PA to Israel. In a recent meeting with Knesset members, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear his perception of the PA’s real job: “Where it’s successfully operating, it does our job for us,” he said, referring to the PA’s security operations in Area A. The PA also maintains a police force that is in charge of prisons and handles domestic crime concerns, like drug and traffic enforcement.

Outside of its security duties, the role of the PA in many ways resembles that of other governmental authorities around the world, with the significant caveat that all of its actions are subject to Israeli delay, disruption, or blockage as a result of the multiple layers of control Israel exercises over Palestinians. For example, the PA manages waste services for Palestinians, collecting garbage and distributing it to one of the landfills in Area A, under the auspices of local municipalities and village councils. However, because no new trash facilities can be built outside of Area A, these landfills are over capacity. Just over half of collected trash (53 percent) was disposed in landfills in 2017; the rest was burned or dumped in unofficial sites.

There are some civil services which are even more significantly limited by Israel. In 1967, Israel placed all water resources in the occupied territories under its control, prohibiting Palestinian development of water infrastructure without an Israeli-issued permit (which is often denied). Israel has allocated nearly 80 percent of this water to its own citizens. Thus, about 660,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have insufficient access to water, while many living in Area C have no water infrastructure at all. Members of the PA do serve on the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, but Israeli members regularly veto projects proposed by PA members; and even when agreements do pass, the Israeli Civil Administration often blocks those proposed projects that would benefit Palestinians.

The Israeli Civil Administration often blocks PA proposed projects that would benefit Palestinians in the West Bank.

In the health sector, the PA’s public health services are but one option in a crowded and fragmented field. In terms of service delivery, other actors such as UNRWA, multiple types of NGOs, and a growing private sector, which is seen as delivering the highest quality of services. But there are some roles only the PA Ministry of Health can fill, including coordinating services between multiple actors, developing infrastructure, monitoring and managing infectious diseases, providing oversight of non-government health facilities, and importantly, acting as the main supervisory and regulatory body of the health system and issuing medical licenses and overseeing pharmaceuticals. This last duty includes shipping pharmaceuticals to health ministry counterparts in the Gaza Strip, a task that is regularly disrupted as a result of both funding shortfalls to suppliers and political divisions between Fatah and Hamas. This sector is also subject to the import and movement restrictions of the Israeli occupation, which regularly leads to supply shortages and the inability of facilities of all types to obtain and retain the equipment and personnel necessary to manage a fully sovereign health system. As a result, a significant part of the Ministry of Health budget is spent on referral services for Palestinians to access care in East Jerusalem or Israeli hospitals, thereby directly taking money out of the Palestinian economy.

The Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education plays a similar role in the education sector, delivering services at its government schools, developing the curriculum, managing infrastructure, and certifying teachers. The current education system, however, is built on the remnants of the Egyptian/Jordanian systems that governed Palestinian education immediately after the Nakba. It is also dependent on the whims and restrictions of donors that support the educational system, often leading to a minimization of Palestinian history in the curriculum and the inclusion of little content relevant to Palestinians today, such as critical thinking related to mechanisms of liberation. In recent years, the Ministry of Education has made reform a supposed priority in the curriculum, teaching methodologies, and facilities themselves; but the outcomes of any of these recent changes have yet to be noted.

Is Life Better for Palestinians with the PA?

Undoubtedly, certain life indicators have improved significantly in the period since the PA has existed. Life expectancy has gone up, as have literacy rates for both boys and girls. However, the extent to which this is due to the PA’s actions, or whether these outcomes are more closely tied to the significant influx of aid provided to Palestinians upon the passage of the Oslo Accords is unclear.

In the same period, Israel has continued to seize land, demolish homes, build settlements, and kill Palestinians with near impunity. Israel has erected a separation wall in the West Bank and enforced a more than 15-year siege on the Gaza Strip. In recent years, the poverty rate has increased and food insecurity remains high. Far from being seen as a tool of Palestinian liberation, the PA is now seen as a corrupt and ineffective entity that, in many ways, contributes nearly as much misery to the Palestinian public as the Israeli occupation itself. According to a recent survey, 57 percent of Palestinians think that the continued existence of the PA serves Israel’s interests and 77 percent demand the resignation of President Abbas.

57% of Palestinians think that the continued existence of the PA serves Israel’s interests and 77% demand the resignation of President Abbas.

For years, many critics have called for the dissolution of the PA, which has long outlived its relevance and role as a precursor government to an independent Palestinian state—now seen as a completely unrealistic outcome considering geographic realities. They argue that Israel, as the occupying power, retains the ultimate responsibility for Palestinians’ welfare, as dictated by the Geneva Conventions. In their view, the existence of the PA offers Israel a scapegoat when poor Palestinian outcomes are reported, allowing it to ignore its obligations and act as though Palestinians are sovereign when it suits them, while also maintaining the ability to raid Palestinian towns, collect Palestinian taxes, and restrict Palestinian movement at will.

However, despite the limited roles the PA fills, it is clear that such an action would cause, at the very least, a short-term crisis across Palestine. Who would collect the trash? Who would pay the government doctors and teachers? What would happen to the tens of thousands of workers who would be suddenly unemployed? It is the reluctance to wrestle with these serious considerations, as well PA elites’ dependence on their current, albeit limited, positions of power, that constrains the ability to imagine creative alternatives for Palestinians that are built on justice, equity, and accountability rather than on the mandates of the Oslo Accords, which were outdated and unrealistic the moment they were signed.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Wafa