The Conversation: Palestinian Authority faces legitimacy crisis

As Israeli soldiers withdrew from the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank after two days of fighting, Israeli generals and politicians were quick to hail the major military operation there as a success.

Army Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi declared, “We hit the terrorists hard. We arrested many and destroyed many of their weapons and ammunition.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the military for destroying “many terrorist infrastructures.”

But no military operation can resolve what I see as the underlying problem, a problem that caused Jenin’s refugee camp to become what Netanyahu has described as a “safe haven” for Palestinian militants in the first place.

That is a legitimacy crisis facing the Palestinian Authority — the self-governing body that has limited rule over parts of the occupied West Bank not directly ruled by Israel, including Jenin.

As a scholar and author specializing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I believe this latest military operation will, in fact, only worsen that legitimacy crisis. Indeed, when three senior Palestinian Authority officials attended a mass funeral in Jenin on July 5, 2023, for some of the Palestinians killed in the fighting, they were accused by mourners of weakness and quickly forced to leave by an angry crowd chanting, “Get out! Get out!”

The Israeli military’s incursion into Jenin’s densely populated refugee camp is just the most recent operation of many it has conducted in the northern West Bank city over the past two years.

To be sure, the assault of June 3-4 was on a much greater scale than previous raids into Jenin.

It was the largest that Israel has conducted in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, during the Palestinian uprising of 2000-05, known as the second intifada. It was also the first time that Israel has used air strikes since then.

But the reason for this incursion was fundamentally the same as the reason for previous Israeli raids in Jenin, as well as Nablus, another city in the northern West Bank. That is, these cities have effectively become sanctuaries for armed Palestinian militants from which they regularly carry out shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Under the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1990s, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for policing these cities and preventing militants from operating within them.

Yet the growing number of shooting attacks against Israelis that have been conducted by militants based in these areas suggests that it has failed. Israeli officials say more than 50 shooting attacks have been carried out by Jenin-area militants so far this year alone.

Israeli officials and American politicians have blamed the Palestinian Authority and its octogenarian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, for this failure. This criticism, however, overlooks why the Palestinian Authority has lost control over parts of the northern West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority has become deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public. In a poll conducted last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 63% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza thought the Palestinian Authority is a burden and 50% thought its collapse or dissolution would be in the best interests of the Palestinian public.

Abbas himself has even less support. In the survey, 80% of Palestinians expressed dissatisfaction and favored his resignation.

The Palestinian Authority’s unpopularity is due to numerous factors.

Palestinians have accused it of corruption, incompetence and brutally repressing dissent. Human rights groups have accused the Palestinian Authority of arbitrarily arresting people and even torturing detainees.

The Palestinian Authority has undoubtedly become increasingly autocratic and authoritarian. There has not been a presidential election since 2005, and the last legislative elections were held in 2006.

The continued schism between Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas — the bitter rival governing the Palestinian enclave of Gaza — has prevented its parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, from functioning. As a result, Abbas rules by decree.

The authority’s democratic decline is a product of a deeper, more fundamental problem: It has lost its legitimacy among an increasing number of Palestinians.

The reason for this, I believe, is that the Palestinian Authority has lost its raison d’etre.

It was created in 1994 with the intention that it would be the embryo of a future Palestinian state. According to the Oslo Accords, it was meant to exist only temporarily — for no more than five years — during which time a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO would be negotiated, resulting in Palestinian statehood.

Nearly three decades later, the Palestinian Authority still exists. But Palestinian statehood looks like a distant prospect at best.

Meanwhile, the land on which Palestinians expected this state would be built has been steadily eaten away by relentless Israeli settlement. Indeed, most Palestinians have given up their hope for a Palestinian state.

The peace process appears to be dead — the Biden administration hasn’t even tried to resuscitate it — and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which began 56 years ago, seems permanent.

In such a bleak situation, the Palestinian Authority has become merely a municipal government — operating in the 40% of the West Bank that Israel prefers to avoid ruling over directly.

In addition to providing public services such as education and health care to Palestinians, its main function is to assist the Israeli army and security services to prevent Palestinian violence against Israelis. Yet it is unable to prevent Israeli violence against Palestinians, which happens on a regular, and sometimes daily, basis, especially by extremist Jewish settlers.

It is little wonder, therefore, that many Palestinians regard the Palestinian Authority as a collaborator with Israel, a facilitator of Israel’s occupation, rather than a means to end it.

The Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel is most unpopular, which is why its officials and particularly the members of its security forces have become reluctant to perform this mission.

As a result, the Palestinian Authority has gradually lost control over places like Jenin and Nablus, leaving a power vacuum that has been filled by militant groups.

Some of these groups, specifically Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have ties with Iran, which encourages them to attack Israelis in order to destabilize the West Bank.

Others are newly formed, unaffiliated groups composed of armed young men and teenagers, whose violence is driven by despair, desperation and a desire for revenge.

These are the militants in Jenin whom the IDF has tried to capture or kill during its most recent military operation there.

No doubt, as Israeli authorities have said, the raid has succeeded in arresting some and killing others. But this success comes at a steep price — first and foremost, to Palestinian civilians, but also to the Palestinian Authority.

Unable to prevent this Israeli incursion or protect Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority’s impotence is apparent for all to see. This will, I believe, only worsen its standing in the eyes of the Palestinian public and thus exacerbate its legitimacy crisis.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.



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