The Palestinian Authority and reform under occupation

By Mohsen Mohammed Saleh

Is real reform of the Palestinian Authority (PA) possible, or is reform simply a matter of 'dancing to the Occupation's tune'? Also, can the types of reform be divided and classified in such a way that some administrative, economic, educational, and social reforms are achieved, with the understanding that political and security reforms are much more difficult – if not impossible? Or will reform solely improve the image of the Occupation and prolong its existence – which in itself is considered a deviation from the prime objective that the Palestinian Authority was established to achieve: ending the Occupation and not merely improving the status quo under its reign?

 The problem of the Palestinian Authority and reform

The problem of the PA stems from the fact that its establishment was based on the tenets of the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which the Authority not only forfeited its right to the 1948 occupied territories but also made some fundamental mistakes, the most apparent of these being:

  • The postponement of the quest for solutions to the core Palestinian issues such as the right of return of refugees, Jerusalem, the expansion of the settlements, Palestinian sovereignty over their own land, and the finalising of the borders of the Palestinian state.

  • The inability to establish a binding mechanism or give an ultimatum which would force Israel to withdraw from the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and to resolve the core Palestinian issues.

  • The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA suspended the Palestinian people's right to resist the Occupation, renounced 'terrorism', and bound itself to resolving its issues with Israel through non-violent means alone.

  • Many other political, economic, and security agreements and measures – which served to strengthen Israel's hegemony – were later established on the foundation of the Oslo Accords. Furthermore, none of these later agreements provided any real basis for Palestinian independence or laid the groundwork for creating a safe and stable environment under which the Authority could have developed itself and its organisations in an effort to establish the Palestinian state.

  • At the same time, the dirty work relating to crushing Palestinian armed resistance, as well as tax collection and municipal and social welfare, were forced upon the Authority. Moreover, Israel could penalise the Authority for any apparent negligence in fulfilling these commitments.

In short, the way in which the PA was established under Oslo seemed more like a trap than a solution or a way out; and the route it took was more akin to wandering aimlessly in a labyrinth than walking naturally and logically towards independence. It should therefore not be strange that an outstanding intellectual and writer such as Edward Said described the Oslo Accords by saying that Yasser Arafat had 'lured his people into a trap that has no escape'.

Clearly, the problem lies in the rules of the game, whose intricacies and nuances are completely controlled by the Israeli side. The Palestinians, however, are forced to manage their daily lives, economic affairs, imports and exports, and external relationships through the narrow window that Israel provides. The current situation that Palestinians find themselves in closely resembles a group of prisoners who have been assigned a warden to manage their daily affairs; a person who can make their lives even more miserable if they did not comply with his rules.


The aggravation of the problem and the need for reform

The PLO considered the establishment of the PA as its opportunity to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 OPT. This idea seemed reasonable to the PLO as it understood at the time that permanent status issues would be resolved within five years, during which the PLO could establish the infrastructure of the new Palestinian state. However, events unfolded in a manner that ruined the PLO's dream and served to stagnate any real sustainable reform. Below are the most obvious of such events:

  1.                                                                                                                                            It is Israel (not the PLO) that has hastened – successfully – to impose its own facts on the ground through the expansion of its Judaization plans and the construction of settlements. It is this strategy which has made the negotiation process never-ending. For example, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank increased from 180 000 in 1993 to 540 000 at the beginning of 2010. Moreover, rapid and wide-ranging operations to Judaize Jerusalem and efface its Arab aspects have taken place and are still under-way. At the same time, the Israeli separation wall has been built through the expropriation of Palestinian land and the tearing apart of the Palestinian people and their social fabric.

  1. Fatah, which led the PLO, the PA, and the peace settlement efforts with Israel, found itself standing alone and facing wide-spread opposition from almost ten Palestinian factions – the most noticeable being Hamas. Fatah had established the Authority before any real efforts were made to put the Palestinian house in order. As a result, the institutions of the Authority were mainly staffed by members of Fatah and its supporters – as well as shameless opportunists and exploiters.

    Patronage, purchasing loyalties, administrative and financial corruption, and the emergence of a new class of bureaucrats, old revolutionaries, and VIPs – who took advantage of the new state of affairs to serve their vested interests – malignantly spread throughout the ministries and institutions of the Authority. At the same time, political, security, and administrative measures were put in place to exclude competent labour aligned to dissident Palestinian factions (especially the Islamists), no matter how qualified they were.

  1. There was a large swelling of the Palestinian security corps. Apart from the fact that the majority of its commanders and recruits were subservient to a single Palestinian faction, namely Fatah, massive numbers of security forces were also recruited resulting in the proportion of the security forces in comparison to the local population is the highest in the world. There is one police officer for every eighty-four Palestinians, as opposed to one police officer for every 3 200 individuals in London, for example. The bigger problem, however, was the role that these security forces had – willingly or unwillingly – to play in crushing the Palestinian armed resistance and hunting down dissenting elements, all done in compliance with the Oslo Accords.

  1. Economically, the areas that were placed under PA control have suffered from major structural problems, primarily due to the continuance of the Occupation and its ability to enforce blockades and closures; destroy infrastructure; expropriate land; exterminate crops; establish stationary and mobile checkpoints; obstruct the import and export of goods; and deprive factories of raw materials, prevent them from marketing their own goods, and even destroying them if Israel deemed it appropriate. Furthermore, the Occupation controls all movement of funds, labour, and human resources.

As for the Authority's budget, an average of fifty to fifty-five percent comes from donor countries with the European Union and the United States being the largest contributors. On the other hand, the peace agreements have given Israel the exclusive right to collect Palestinian customs duties and deliver them to the Authority – but only after performing its 'revenue clearance' procedures. This revenue source forms thirty to thirty-five percent of the Authority's budget. In other words, eighty percent of the Authority's budget is at the mercy of and held hostage to the political temperament of both Israel and the west, who demand strict political and security concessions from anyone who wishes to manage the Authority.

Israel has been able to link the Palestinian economy with its own, as illustrated by the fact that eighty-five percent of the Authority's exports go to Israel, while seventy percent of its imports are from Israel. On the other hand, the Authority itself has suffered from widespread corruption in its ministries and institutions, and a consumerist relationship based on patronage and favouritism has been established between the Authority and its citizens. Much has been written about this, but it should suffice to refer to the May 1997 report issued by the Palestinian Legislative Council's (PLC) monitoring committee (led, at the time, by Fatah), which stated that financial corruption within the Authority had led to the loss of more than 326 million dollars (out of a total budget of about 1 500 million dollars). Upon the release of the report, the PLC passed a vote of no-confidence on President Arafat's government with a vote of fifty-six to one.

When the issue of reforming the Palestinian Authority was raised in 2003, and was granted Israeli and American support, 'reform' efforts focused on reducing the authority of Arafat. This was due to his support for the intifada. These reforms created the position of prime minister, as well as reformed the security forces so that they were better able to fulfil the security commitments of the peace agreement and crack down on resistance elements. As for economic reform, it aimed at improving economic performance and providing a reasonable level of services after corruption and laxness had exceeded all bounds. However, none of the major structural problems related to the occupation have been solved.

Salam Fayyad's government and reform

Salam Fayyad has had a great opportunity to realise his vision for reform since he became prime minister of the Palestinian government in Ramallah in mid-June 2007. He built his vision on a strict implementation of the Roadmap and the concessions of the peace settlement, starting with security commitments, in an effort to secure cooperation from Israel, which he believed would pave the way towards establishing a Palestinian state. In August 2009, Fayyad revealed his government's two-year plan to establish the institutions of an independent Palestinian state. This plan included pioneering projects such as building an airport and a railway; securing energy and water resources; improving housing, education, and agriculture; encouraging investments; and enhancing the performance of the security forces.

Also, in response to accusations addressed against him that his plans were consistent with the 'economic peace' that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had called for (also known as 'comfort under occupation'), Fayyad stated that his plan was integrated and developmental in nature, and that it aimed to end the occupation rather than strengthening it. However, Fayyad's problem is that he deals with an Israeli side that demands full concessions from Palestinians, yet does not commit to anything in return. Such frustration was evident on the part of the PA government and its leaders as Judaiziation and settlement expansion projects continued, hundreds of barricades and roadblocks remained, and many restrictions were placed on Palestinian imports and exports and the movement of funds. Moreover, Fayyad's government paid a heavy political price because it committed itself to facing-off with and cracking down on Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions, as well as neutralising the role of the legislative assembly. In addition, the survival of the Fayyad government is contingent upon the current Palestinian political division and the disagreement over a unified Palestinian national platform.

Hamas, reform and change

During the first few years of the Authority's inception, Hamas was not convinced that any legislative or political action through the Authority was worthwhile, and it therefore boycotted the 1996 Palestinian elections. Nevertheless, Hamas later found itself faced with new circumstances with the end of the second intifada, the death of Arafat, and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president. The changed circumstances included the signing of the Cairo Agreement which opened the door to reform of the PLO and the holding of municipal and parliamentary elections. Hamas, whose popularity had soared, felt that the next concession to be made by the Authority would be targeting and crushing the Palestinian resistance. Hence, the movement thought that by participating in the elections it would provide itself with an important forum to impede this anti-resistance plan and would strengthen the Palestinian stance regarding the 'peace process'. Hamas also believed that defending the interests of Palestinian citizens through confronting administrative and financial corruption coincided with most of its interim objectives.

Although participation in the elections did not receive unanimous support within Hamas' ranks, it still participated under the banner of 'Reform and Change'. After achieving a victory in the elections and leading the tenth and eleventh Palestinian governments, Hamas realised how difficult – if not impossible – it was to bring about real reform or change without granting serious concessions. Moreover, Hamas realised that by entering the political process, it was not given the opportunity to initiate real reform, but was, instead, merely subjugated to the conditions of the Oslo Accords. In other words, Hamas could not engineer any economic, administrative, or security reforms without making huge political concessions (in the form of the Quartet conditions), which would literally strip the movement of its identity and goals. In addition, when Hamas wanted to alter the rules of the game and free itself of the binding conditions of the Oslo Accords, it was met with a suffocating Israeli blockade, the arrest of its members of parliament, and the banning of its programmes and activities.

It has become clear from the experience of the five years since Hamas' electoral victory that whoever wants to bring about reform under the Occupation must dance to its tune. In other words, the reform process – despite its low probability of success – is strongly linked to making heavy political concessions to the Israeli side, concessions which are far too costly for any Palestinian resistance group to pay for.

It can be argued that Hamas was successful in seizing political legitimacy just as it seized revolutionary legitimacy during Al-Aqsa Intifada. Moreover, it was successful in revealing the grim side of the Oslo Accords, and it was able to run the Gaza Strip according to its own conditions, without paying the required political costs to Israel or the west. However, the status of the siege, the existing political and geographical divide, and the tremendous suffering which face the supporters of the resistance in the West Bank all seem to be costs whose magnitude was unclear to Hamas when it initially embarked on its political path and led the Authority government.

If there is ever going to be a national peace undertaking in the near future, Hamas must answer this call before anyone else: it must disclose its political platform in the context of new parliamentary elections; it must explain how it will deal with the concessions expected from it upon its winning or losing the elections; and it must describe how it plans to realise its call for reform and change, especially in the West Bank where no reform or change can take place except within the boundaries of the Oslo Accords. Or is affirming its political legitimacy and popular support all that Hamas wants to do?

It is now critical that the Palestinian house is put in order, its priorities defined in accordance with its grand interests, and, consequently, the role of the Authority revisited and re-evaluated – if there is any real benefit to its existence.

* Dr. Mohsen Mohammed Saleh is the Director of Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, and is a prolific writer on issues related to Palestine and Israel.

** This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre and AlJazeera Centre for Studies.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 13:10

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