The Fate of the Palestinian Authority Post-Hamas Attack
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

The 7 October attack by Hamas’ military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades backed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) Al-Quds Brigades has boosted the support for armed resistance path among Palestinians, frustrated with the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s negotiated approach agreed during Oslo Accords to achieve statehood. The article attempts to provide a brief background of Palestinian political dynamics in the post Oslo Accords period. It seeks to critically examine the reasons for PA’s declining popularity and finally evaluate the possibility and conditions for the PA to re-take Gaza after Israel’s Operation Swords of Iron.

Oslo Accords

The 1993 and 1995[1] Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) facilitated in the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as an interim government with limited self-governance over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The occupied West Bank was divided into three areas i.e. Area A under Palestinian administration and security; Area B under Palestinian administration and joint-Israeli-Palestinian security and Area C under Israeli administration and security. The agreed four stages were, transfer of governing powers in the Gaza Strip and Jericho; transfer of few civil authority responsibilities to Palestinians; negotiations for a formal interim arrangement for implementation of Declaration of Principles (DOP) and final status negotiations on Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relationsand cooperation with other neighbours and other issues of common interest.[2]

The Oslo Accords were aimed at facilitating Palestinian self-determination and statehood. The progress towards statehood stalled because Israel continued to build and expand settlements by expropriating land; tolerated settler violence; blocked safe passage for people and goods between West Bank and Gaza Strip; backtracked on its commitments to release of agreed number of prisoners or carry out military withdrawal; new redeployments took place creating checkpoints and roadblocks etc. On PLO’s part, it failed to prevent violent attacks on Israeli forces and civilians rationalizing Israel’s position to preserve security control retracting its guarantees under the accords. The arrival of Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch critic of the Accords as Prime Minister in 1996 and 2000-2005 Al Aqsa Intifada completely paralyzed the peace process.

Hamas rejected the accords calling it ‘defeatist’ to recognize Israel and legalize the occupation; legitimize the expulsion of Palestinians; non-commitment on the right to return for refugees, settlement freeze or assure statehood. The group refused to denounce armed resistance or recognise Israel that would imply recognition of the ‘Zionist occupation’.[3] Hamas instead of recognition and full peace has indicated willingness to conclude a long term truce or extended ceasefire or Hudna with Israel allowing agreement where it is possible without official recognition or resolving the subject of the right of return. The armed group in post Oslo Accords period continued to carry out violent activities against Israeli state and its citizens.[4]

In terms of Palestinians politics, the power struggle heightened following January 2006 legislative election in which Hamas’ Change and Reform list secured 74 seats and Fatah won 45 seats in the 132 seat assembly.[5] The victory by Hamas triggered factional fighting with Fatah that escalated in June 2007 following failure to accept and sustain power sharing and undertake governance responsibilities. It led to Hamas takeover of Gaza by imprisoning, executing or expelling Fatah officials. On 14 June 2007, PA President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the unity government under Ismail Haniyeh.[6] The internecine conflict reportedly killed at least 161 Palestinians including 41 civilians.[7] Eventually, governance in the occupied territories was divided into two polities, Gaza under Hamas and West Bank under Fatah led PA, both perceiving themselves as the real representative of the Palestinian people.[8]

Over the years, there have been number of efforts towards reconciliation which has failed. Hamas in 2017 agreed to allow PA to oversee all civilian matters in Gaza but refused to give up arms. Israel discouraged PA to engage with Hamas unless it denounces armed resistance and recognizes the Jewish state. Crucially, Benjamin Netanyahu after return to power in 2009 reversed his predecessor, Ehud Olmert’s policy to end the conflict by entering into a peace treaty with Mahmoud Abbas.[9] Netanyahu’s policy of ‘divide and rule’ was based on preserving Hamas’ governance and military capabilities; carrying limited assault to restore deterrence and facilitate the group’s financial well being through Qatar to sustain disunity with Fatah led PA. The policy to perpetuate rift between Hamas in Gaza and PA in West Bank helped Israel preserve the diplomatic paralysis and deflect international pressure to move forward with the peace process under the pretext that Mahmoud Abbas government does not represent all Palestinians.[10] The Prime Minister speaking at a Likud meeting in March 2019 stated, “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must support delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining separation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”[11] Israel profited from sustaining Hamas’ political control in Gaza and weakening the legitimacy of the PA.

The PA’s Declining Legitimacy

The PA has failed to achieve its stated objective and the hope of a two state solution has gradually dwindled. The governing body has become highly unpopular for its inability to prevent settlements expansion; curb settler attacks and army raids on Palestinian towns and villages; failure to nurture unity among Palestinian factions or resolve the bitter rivalry with Hamas; lift the blockade from Gaza; assure freedom of access etc. The PA leaders and security officials are mired in cases of corruption.[12] Corruption in the form of favouritism and nepotism, bribery, money laundering, embezzlement of public funds, absence of transparency in administration of state institutions, breach of trust is highly prevalent. The problems are systemic due to weak compliance with the rule of law, absence of democratic and representative parliament, lack of political will to hold corrupt officials accountable etc.[13] According to September 2023 opinion poll by Ramallah based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), 87 percent perceive PA institutions to be corrupt; 62 percent see PA as burden on the Palestinian people and 73 percent think PA prisons are holding Palestinian prisoners.[14] The political system blocks any advance of younger leaders, and there is absence of any real vision to achieve peace.

The PA over the years has detained and arrested number of Palestinians in West Bank. It has been accepted for its security role to maintain law and order by Israel and the US. In the aftermath of the 7 October attack, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s discussion with President Abbas centered on taking measures to restore calm and stability in the West Bank. Blinken did not refer to peace negotiations and focussed on his only role i.e. preserving the status quo and Israel’s security.[15] The number of protests and spontaneous demonstrations with pro-Hamas slogans throughout the occupied territory has surged leading to clashes. The PA security forces have cracked down on demonstrations in West Bank cities and public gatherings outside illegal Jewish settlements.[16] It has reinforced PA’s image as a subcontractor of Israeli security. In fact, the Oslo Accords has freed Israel of the governing responsibilities in the occupied territories by delegating it to the PA. Israeli government has been able to devote attention towards the security priorities; sustain the status quo; increase settlements and prolong the occupation. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza and PA’s inability to gather international consensus to protect the civilians has made it even more unpopular.

Palestinians in occupied territories are regularly detained and arrested by Israel and many are kept without trial for years. Israel Prison Service was holding 4,764 Palestinians including 176 from Gaza on so called ‘security’ grounds until end of November 2023.[17] Thousands of Palestinians have been arrested post 7 October attack and according to Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Commission for Detainees and Ex-Prisoners’ Affairs, around 8,300 people are languishing in Israeli prisons. The arbitrary arrests, detentions and ill-treatment of prisoners are pressing issues in Palestinian society.[18] Hamas’ success in securing release of 150 women and children prisoners in exchange of Israeli and foreign hostages between 22 and 26 November 2023 is seen as a major moral victory by its supporters.[19]

The Abraham Accords by few key Arab states is seen by Palestinians as a betrayal of pan-Arab solidarity. The PA leadership has been opposing Israel’s efforts to sideline the peace process and normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE); Bahrain; Morocco and Sudan. There was a positive momentum for projects such as India, Israel, the UAE, the US grouping (I2U2) and India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) aimed at integrating Israel in the regional geo-economics. For Israel, normalization with Saudi Arabia, site of the two holiest shrines in Islam is the grand prize which seemed within reach prior to the 7 October attack. Israel’s heavy handed efforts in Gaza killing around 21,000 people[20] have slowed the pace of normalization with Riyadh. The growing regional instability has disrupted the progress on IMEC and I2U2 projects for the time being. Hamas has been credited for stalling Israel’s integration process in the region. PA’s diplomatic pressure tactic to showcase Israel’s policies in international and regional forums has met with limited success to isolate the Jewish state or place pressure to accept concessions necessary for two-state solution.

A majority of Palestinians view armed resistance as the most viable option stemming from hopelessness about the peace process. The Palestinian population living in the West Bank has been restlessness for years and there is growing inclination especially among the youth to turn to armed resistance due to futility of negotiated two-state solution. According to December 2022 poll by PCPSR, 72 percent of Palestinians (65 percent in West Bank and 84 percent in Gaza Strip) support the formation of armed groups to resist the occupation.[21] In recent years, the appearance of small armed groups suchas Lion’s Den; Jenin Brigade; Balata Brigade; Osh al-Dababir or Hornets’ Nest Battalion and the increasing popularity of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) indicate the growing frustration with the PA and proclivity towards violence as means to resist the occupation and deny Israel imposed status quo as fait accompli.[22]

Israel’s far-right government has intensified measures to entrench the occupation in West Bank and the frequency of harassment towards Palestinians by Israeli forces and settlers have risen exponentially. Israeli forces have killed around 495 Palestinians in West Bank from January until 19 December 2023 and among these deaths, 295 people including 76 children and one woman were slayed post 7 October attack.[23] Israeli cabinet ministers have indulged in hateful vitriol against Palestinians and Arab citizens since coming to power in December 2022. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar-Ben Gvir have incited settler violence against Palestinians leading to loss of lives and destruction of resources. There have been at least 17 Palestinian deaths by Israeli settlers in West Bank between January and December 2023 out of which 9 were killed since 7 October[24] and around 1000 Palestinians have fled their homes in West Bank due to surge in settler attacks and intimidation.[25]

In the aftermath of Hamas attack, the preference to form armed groups to protect themselves against Israeli settler attacks grew from 45 percent in September 2023 to 56 percent in December 2023 poll; support for armed struggle as the best option to end occupation grew from 53 percent to 63 percent and support for return to confrontations and armed intifada as measure to break the stalemate grew from 53 percent to 69 percent during the same period. The radicalization among the Palestinian population in West Bank is translating into rising popularity of Hamas’ and PIJ’s armed resistance approach. In December 2023 opinion poll by PCPSR, 72 percent (82 percent in West Bank and 57 percent in Gaza) said the 7 October attack was a correct decision with 81 percent (89 percent in West Bank and 69 percent in Gaza) concurred that it was in response to intrusions in Al Aqsa Mosque compound; settler attacks on Palestinian citizens and release of prisoners.[26]

The 7 October attack has increased the stature of Hamas and directly translated into its growing acceptability. In terms of satisfaction, Hamas scored highest at 72 percent (85 percent in West Bank and 52 percent in Gaza) followed by Yahya Sinwar at 69 percent (81 percent in West Bank and 52 percent in Gaza); Ismail Haniyeh at 51 percent (57 percent in West Bank and 43 percent in Gaza); Fatah at 22 percent (23 percent in West Bank and 21 percent in Gaza); Mahmoud Abbas at 11 percent (7 percent in West Bank and 17 percent in Gaza) and Mohammad Shtayyeh at 10 percent (6 percent in West Bank and 16 percent in Gaza) in the December 2023 poll by PCPSR.[27] In terms of support, the popularity of Hamas has soared from 22 percent in September to 43 percent (44 percent in West Bank and 42 percent in Gaza) and Fatah’s support has dwindled from 26 percent to 17 percent (16 percent in West Bank and 18 percent in Gaza) in December 2023. In case of parliamentary election participated by all the parties, Hamas would receive 51 percent (50 percent in West Bank and 52 percent in Gaza Strip) in December 2023 as compared to 34 percent (40 percent in West Bank and 24 percent in Gaza Strip) in September 2023 and Fatah at 19 percent as compared to 36 percent in the same period.[28] Currently, 54 percent believe Hamas to be most deserving of representing the Palestinian people as compared to 13 percent for Fatah.[29]

President Mahmoud Abbas’ popularity was already low which has further deteriorated after 7 October attack and Israel’s ground operation. In terms of presidential election, Mahmoud Abbas’s vote share reduced from 37 percent (43 percent in West Bank and 33 percent in Gaza) in September 2023 to 16 percent (10 percent in West Bank and 24 percent in Gaza) in December 2023 whereas in the same period, Ismail Haniyeh’s vote share increased from 58 percent (50 percent in West Bank and 64 percent in Gaza) to 78 percent (82 percent in West Bank and 71 percent in Gaza). Currently, the level of satisfaction with Abbas is at 14 percent (10 percent in West Bank and 19 percent in Gaza) from 22 percent (21 percent in West Bank and 24 percent in Gaza) in September 2023 and around 88 percent (92 percent in West Bank and 81 percent in Gaza) want Abbas to resign and 68 percent believe PA as burden of Palestinian people.[30] Hamas’ Operation Al Aqsa Flood has further weakened the legitimacy of the PA and its 87 year old President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas while being aware of his declining popularity decided to indefinitely postpone the May 2021 legislative and July 2021 presidential elections. Reportedly, Abbas and his allies are weakened by challengers from within his own divided Fatah party.[31] Marwan Barghouti, Mohammed Dahlan and Nasser al-Qudwa – a nephew of Yasser Arafat – announced a rival list of candidates to run against Abbas’s official list in 2021.[32] Abbas and his party feared embarrassment posed by challengers within Fatah and Hamas in case of electoral loss. The jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti has consistently ranked as the most preferable leader according to Palestinian opinion polls. In case of presidential competition among three top candidates in December 2023 poll; Marwan Barghouti, Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Abbas received 47 percent; 43 percent and 7 percent respectively. In case of choice for President Abbas’ successor, Marwan Barghouti received the highest vote share at 36 percent followed by Ismail Haniyeh at 19 percent; Yahya Sinwar at 16 percent; Mohammad Dahlan at 4 percent; Khaled Meshaal at 3 percent; Mohammad Shtayyeh at 2 percent and Hussein al-Sheikh at 1 percent.[33]

President Abbas called the 7 October attack as failure to implement legitimate international resolutions to halt Israel’s “continued injustices” against the Palestinian people which has led to an explosion. Abbas has faced criticism from Israel and the US for not sufficiently condemning the violence.[34] At the same time, Palestinians are critical of PA’s security cooperation with Israel and close ties with the US. The Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot has emphasized on the continuing relevance of the PLO as the only national, regional and international representative of the Palestinian people.[35] Mahmoud Abbas’ strategy currently is to mobilize humanitarian resources for Gaza and push for a diplomatic end to the war. US-based Middle East expert Hasan Awwad told The Media Line that, “his silence is a position. Not intervening is a position in itself to protect his political project. He wants to appease the international community and regional players.”[36] He fears backlash against Fatah. In light of the ongoing developments, questions arise whether PA is capable and willing to take over Gaza after Israel’s ground operation.

PA Rule in Gaza?

Benjamin Netanyahu on numerous occasions has pressed that PA in its current form cannot be accepted to assume governing role over Gaza. He mentioned Abbas government’s refusal to condemn the 7 October violence; prevalence of anti-Israel content in school textbooks and public narrative; rewards for family of fighters and failure to curb Palestinian violence on Israeli civilians and forces as grounds that it cannot be accepted in civil administration role in Gaza Strip.[37] The US rejected Israel’s long-term role in Gaza or efforts to displace Palestinians to Sinai and emphasised on the five guiding principles in post conflict Gaza i.e. no forcible displacement; no reoccupation; no siege or blockade; no reduction in territory and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism.[38]

President Joe Biden has called for re-uniting West Bank and Gaza under single governing structure by ‘revitalized Palestinian Authority’.[39] For Palestinians, revitalized PA would interpret into an accountable and democratic governing structure with fresh ideas to engage with Israel and the international community to achieve two-state solution. For Israel, it wants a subservient PA leadership to continue its civil responsibilities while maintaining its overall security role and preserving the occupation in the long-term. It needs to be seen whether Israel in consonance with the US and its Arab allies could prop up Palestinian leaders of their choosing to manage the occupation.

Mahmoud Abbas during meeting with Anthony Blinken on 5 November hinted the PA’s willingness to return to power in the Gaza Strip only in case of progress in finding a ‘comprehensive political solution”. Abbas stated that, “We will fully assume our responsibilities within the framework of a comprehensive political solution that includes all of the [occupied] West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.”[40] There are speculations whether Palestinians in Gaza are willing to accept the PA as their governing body. Notably only 28 percent (20 percent in West Bank and 39 percent in Gaza) support PA control over unified West Bank and Gaza and 70 percent oppose deployment of Arab security contingent from Egypt, Jordan etc. to help PA manage security in December 2023 poll.[41] The PA’s weak performance and failure to prevent the daily siege and growth of settlements does not exude confidence within Gaza.

Hamas controlling Gaza since 2006 is suffering from its own legitimacy issues and facing serious questions about its political survival in its current form. Hamas government in Gaza has been authoritarian and due to Israeli restrictions, it has not been able to deliver economically. Hamas in the past had cracked down on violent groups to maintain peace with Israel inviting criticisms from its military wing and other more radical groups. In order to replenish the shortcomings in public sector funds; it imposed new taxes, increased property taxes, fees, penalties etc. Notably, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s population lives under poverty and unemployment rate is at 47 percent.[42] Hamas benefits from Gaza’s aid based economy receiving financial help from Qatar that helps in covering the salaries of civil servants, purchasing fuel for power grids and cash transfers for needy families. It receives overt and covert aid from Iran and ideological allies, private donations and groups based in Turkey, Kuwait and Malaysia, as well as through crypto currency, taxes, extortion, smuggling etc.

From Hamas’ perspective, it hopes that the disproportionate response from Israel and the aftermath of the intervention could be used to re-energize its popularity within West Bank and perpetuate the dependence of Palestinians in Gaza upon it and distract from its own domestic policy failures. The December 2023 opinion poll revealed that while Hamas’ popularity in West Bank has surged, the level of enthusiasm is comparatively low in Gaza Strip possibly due to its governance issues and the ongoing onslaught by Israeli forces. Notably, among the 64 percent that foresee Hamas to rule Gaza after the war, only 51 percent in Gaza voted in favour as compared to 73 percent in West Bank. In case of personal preference for any party to control Gaza, only 38 percent opted for Hamas in Gaza as compared to 75 percent in West Bank. Moreover, 72 percent (80 percent in West Bank and only 61 percent in Gaza) believe Hamas will return to control Gaza despite Israel’s objective to eradicate the group.[43]

The brutal assault by Israel in this context could lead to two possible outcomes. The firstly likely outcome is that Israel’s pursuit for security and revenge causing mass scale humanitarian suffering and death toll in Gaza along with systematic oppression in West Bank would fester radicalization and zeal of armed resistance in an occupied society, sustaining and heightening the political legitimacy of Hamas in the long-term. The second likely outcome is that the post-2006 domestic deficiencies in governance by Hamas and the brutal assault could tilt the inclination towards socio-economic development and negotiated settlement under PA. Kenneth Katzman, a senior fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center noted that “much of the Gaza population now realises that Hamas is going to keep dragging them into a war with Israel, and they don’t want that. So I think they’re willing to overlook the Palestinian Authority’s faults. I think that’s true for Palestinians in the West Bank as well. They don’t want … forever war with Israel.”[44] According to the December 2023 opinion poll, while 52 percent blamed Israel for current suffering in Gaza, 11 percent blamed Hamas out of which 19 percent came from Gaza and 6 percent from West Bank. It indicates a trend that connects Hamas’ conduct with the present developments in Gaza. Hamas is a political rival of Abbas’ Fatah Party and it is in PA’s interests to keep the armed group weak. It is however, too early to predict whether PA’s takeover in Gaza is possible which would require unrealistic expectation of eliminating Hamas’ military capabilities and weakening of its political authority.

In order to achieve a truly robust PA, there is urgent need for deep introspection, political will to chalk out innovative ideas and a new vision for the future. These measures could include commitment by all Palestinian factions to fulfill agreement to exchange Israeli hostages for prisoners; Hamas’ acceptance of Oslo Peace Accords between PLO and Israel; commitment to hold elections in entire Palestinian territory within one year; reform process to mould PA into a more representative body empowering young men and women holding regular elections; inclusion of Hamas in reformed PLO; permanent and safe passage between Gaza and West Bank; lifting siege of Gaza; reconstruction of Gaza aimed at economic growth and environmental sustainability under immediate international and Arab supervision; re-energizing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative in coordination with its regional allies. Hamas and Fatah should accept 2017 Cairo reconciliation agreement; allow governing responsibilities by PA in Gaza; form interim governing authority; retain civilian Hamas employees and re-integrate Hamas fighters and arms into PA forces.[45] The new elections for the PA could include commitments to prevent election of violent groups. Therefore, for the Palestinian government to have any authority, it would take new elections, significant resources, financial accountability and “a very different attitude from the Israelis”.[46] Under present circumstances, there is no political will within Fatah and Hamas to move forward towards a more amicable solution.

From Israel’s perspective, there are targets but no deadlines for ground operation and currently, the political and security future of the Gaza Strip is uncertain. It is unclear how long Israel could carry out the military actions with impunity. In case the conflict is long drawn, it raises the potential of rising Jewish Arab violence in the West Bank and Israel; escalation with Hezbollah, Houthis and other Iranian proxies. The political and military constraints may hinder Israel’s ability to achieve its war aims. There is growing currency within Israel to re-occupy Gaza and thin out the population by forcing them to permanently re-locate. Egypt and the US so far has rejected any move to forcefully displace Palestinians. Egypt and other Arab states have denied any security responsibility. It is likely that Israel would assume long-term security role and work with an obeisant PA governing West Bank and Gaza to manage the occupation. Gaza’s borders could also be altered to create a security buffer. In terms of Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal goals, despite the rhetoric of ‘war on terror’, the group could be allowed to survive to perpetuate the policy of keeping PA weak and derailing the peace process. Israel’s plans however will not ensure long-term security and its obstinate policy of upholding the occupation would continue to pose grave threats to its territory and the people.

References

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[44]U. Jamal, “The beginning of the end? The hypothetical future of Palestinian politics”, Al Jazeera, November 28, 2023, at https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/11/28/the-beginning-of-the-end-the-hypothetical-future-of-palestinian-politics (Accessed December 23, 2023).
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[46]R. Amer& M. R Mhawish, “In the midst of Israel’s assault, people of gaza still don’t want the PA”, Al Jazeera, November 2023, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/7/in-the-midst-of-israels-assault-people-of-gaza-still-dont-want-the-pa?traffic_source=rss (Accessed December 22, 2023).

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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