The United States sees a central role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after the war. Is that realistic? And what could Palestinian President Abbas gain from it?
‘It is not up to the United States or the European Union to put pressure on us. They side with Israel and support Israeli aggression. They don’t have to tell us anything.’ Ahmed Majdalani, Minister of Social Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, leaves little room for misunderstanding on the telephone from Ramallah. According to him, the American proposal to give the Palestinian Authority a role in the governance of the Gaza Strip after the war has no chance as long as the Palestinian demand for its own state is not taken seriously.
Now that an estimated ten thousand people have been killed and large parts of Gaza are in ruins, the question is increasingly being asked what should happen when the war is over. Who will govern the Gaza Strip and its 2.2 million inhabitants once Hamas is defeated? US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his concerns about Israel’s lack of an exit strategy during his visit to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last weekend. Twenty kilometers away, in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, he told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian Authority could play a central role in post-war governance.
“I don’t know whether to cry or laugh when I hear the Americans talking about a role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after the war,” says Ghassan Khatib on the phone from Ramallah. Khatib teaches at Birzeit University and has previously served as Minister of Labor at the Palestinian Authority and as a participant in peace negotiations in Madrid and Washington. ‘The Americans have been turning a blind eye to the radicalization of Israel for years, have done nothing against the expansion of settlements and the undermining of the Palestinian Authority and now suddenly come up with this solution.’
Israel should have a plan of its own, Khatib says. “It destroys Gaza and removes Hamas. And what comes the day after? Israel does not want to stay in Gaza on a permanent basis, that is clear. But the Palestinian Authority and other Arab countries, especially Egypt and Jordan, are unwilling to take control there if Israel asks. That is completely morally unacceptable. And furthermore, see how Israel treats the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. We don’t even have real authority here.’
The Palestinian Authority is the product of the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, when Israel and the Palestinians seemed closer to peace than ever. It was agreed that the Palestinian Authority would govern 18 percent of the West Bank, mainly the major cities. Another 22 percent are also under Palestinian Authority civilian control, but the Israeli army controls security and can freely raid and arrest. Most of the West Bank is entirely under the control of the Israeli army.
This extremely limited form of self-government would be the beginning of a Palestinian state. But nothing came of a continuation of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was sabotaged by both far-right Israelis and the radical Islamic Hamas. Since then, the continued construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a Palestinian state – on a contiguous, viable territory – are increasingly being pushed out of the picture. The Palestinians do not appreciate the fact that the West watched this almost uncritically. ‘Now that the train has long since left, Biden and Blinken are suddenly starting to talk about the two-state solution again. That’s too late,” Khatib said.
The Palestinian Authority has now found itself in an extremely thankless position. While it cannot offer its own population the prospect of its own state or protect them against the advancing settlements, it does cooperate with Israel. According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is co-responsible for security in the occupied territories. The idea was that if the Palestinians would show that they no longer posed a threat to Israel, their own Palestinian state would come closer. The Palestinian Authority regularly cancels this cooperation in times of crisis – if only to avoid further antagonizing the Palestinian public – but invariably resumes it. The Palestinian Authority itself also benefits from Israel, with the help of the Palestinian Authority, dismantling violent Palestinian groups that also pose a threat to the Palestinian Authority itself.
As a result, the authority of the Palestinian Authority has been greatly reduced. Many Palestinian citizens now regard the Palestinian Authority as a collaborator with Israel that has not brought the dream of a Palestinian state one step closer. According to many Palestinians, Israel has never given the Palestinian Authority a fair chance to develop into the core of a future Palestinian state.
But the Palestinian leadership itself can also be blamed for a lot, say critics. From the start, the Palestinian Authority was discredited by corruption, nepotism and cronyism. “Before the Palestinian Authority can play a role in a post-war Gaza, deep reforms must take place,” said Gershon Baskin, a left-wing Israeli columnist and staunch advocate of a separate state for the Palestinians. ‘Abbas’ government is corrupt and no longer has any legitimacy. First of all, elections would have to take place some time after the war. Abbas must then hand over governance to the elected parliament and government.’
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was elected in 2005. After that, no more elections were held, for fear of defeat. The last elections for the Palestinian parliament were held in 2006. Disappointment with the Palestinian Authority’s results resulted in a victory for opposition party Hamas. In Gaza, the election results led to a violent fraternal dispute, in which Fatah, Abbas’ party, was expelled from Gaza. Since then, Hamas has been sole ruler of the Gaza Strip, while Fatah controls the West Bank. There is no longer any democracy in the Palestinian territories.
Yet the international community sees the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, far preferable to Hamas and other radical groups. To prevent worse, the Palestinian Authority is being financially supported by the European Union and the United States. The EU is the largest donor in the Palestinian territory, with three billion euros per year. The US transferred more than $500 million since 2021. And for lack of anything better, the Palestinian Authority is now being put forward as the organization that will govern the Gaza Strip once Israel finishes its war against Hamas.
An ‘other’ Israel
But the Palestinian Authority is reluctant to accept this challenge without further firm commitments. “There is nothing to be said until there is a ceasefire and Israel stops its aggression,” Palestinian Authority Minister Ahmed Majdalani said.
According to former minister Khatib, the Palestinian Authority will only be involved if there is a political agreement and it gains control over all Palestinian areas as agreed in previous peace agreements. In other words: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
It is more than unlikely that the current right-wing Israeli cabinet would agree to this. Radical ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir even prefer to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and annexation of the West Bank. Khatib also sees little reason for optimism: ‘This Israel is very different from the Israel we know from the time we negotiated peace. Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel is not that of Rabin and Peres. There is now no longer even a minority in Israel that is willing to talk about giving up a piece of land. The Americans, French, British, Germans have all watched as Israel has been radicalized. So the Palestinians are not interested in their proposals.”