The Palestinian Authority, a historically toothless government operating within the confines of Israeli control and authority in the entirety of historic Palestine, may not be long for the world. Created in conjunction with the absurd geographical and political prescriptions that comprise the Oslo Accords in 1993, the PA was meant to embody a political pivot for the PLO, the secular, nationalist movement seeking to liberate Palestinian communities from the yoke of Israeli domination by any means necessary, including through the use of public acts of political violence. From robust, international fighting force to civil and political authority, the PLO cum PA (and the majority party within it, Fatah) slowly came to be internationally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But over the last 25 years, the PA has grown fat from international donations and become complacent in its position of political dominance within the occupied Palestinian territory. It exists today largely for its own benefit and can be seen to be accomplishing little within its area of political influence other than extending its already unnaturally long life.
But change may well be in the air as regards the stultified and ineffective government. Public confidence in the integrity and efficacy of the Palestinian Authority amongst the Palestinians in the West Bank is at an all-time low and faith in the ability (or even desire) of PA officials to steer Palestine into an improved economic and political future is all but nonexistent. Years of bureaucratic bloat, nepotistic policy, and corruption have turned Palestinians against their elected leadership. Harsh crackdowns on free speech (to include the policing of social media sites), the enrichment of the elites at the expense of the public good, and complicity in Israeli occupation policies are to blame. As a result, references to “Palestinian Democracy” are laughed off by the public at large. The PA is understood to exist for its own benefit and longevity, having long ago abandoned true representation of the will of the Palestinian people either at home, in the highly fraught occupied territory, or on the international stage, as the condition of Palestine quietly slips in the ranking of global political priorities behind the crises in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Today, the PA retains its legitimacy amongst 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians largely on the basis of its ability to fund its own bloated bureaucracy (responsible for employing large numbers of citizens in and around the cultural capital of the West Bank, Ramallah), to provide a bare minimum of health, education, and sanitation services to West Bankers and, perhaps most importantly, based upon its continued claim to represent the Palestinian people. But, 13 years after the suspicious death of the face of the Palestinian national movement, Yasser Arafat, the gloss has long since worn off of his octogenarian successor Mahmoud Abbas, and the tradition of political leadership and civil development in the face of Israeli occupation that Abbas was meant to embrace after Arafat’s passing now seems nearly completely defunct.
Public services continue to deteriorate to deplorable levels in the West Bank while the business portfolios of PA leadership continue to swell. All tobacco and alcohol sales in the West Bank are coordinated and distributed through businesses operated by PA officials including the cigarette monopoly managed by The Falcon Company, an outfit under the control of Mahmoud Abbas’ own sons, Yasser and Tareq. Indeed, the Abbas family is rumored to have a net worth totaling more than $100 million dollars including an unknown sum of misappropriated international donations originally intended for civil and/or social development within Palestinian communities. The Arabic term for this practice, fasaa’id, or “corruption” is on the tip of the tongue of most Palestinians you might speak to, provided of course you are not suspected of being an employee of the Palestinian security services.
As well, public schools in the West Bank now enroll only the poorest children in Palestine; virtually every family who can afford it sends their child to a private or parochial school, paying up to thousands in tuition annually to ensure a comprehensive arts and sciences education through the secondary level. Public hospitals and clinics are likewise openly lampooned by the public at large as dilapidated, outdated, and downright dangerous. Few in the West Bank will struggle to recount an anecdote about a surgery or procedure that went tragically wrong in the public health care system resulting in injury or death from otherwise completely curable maladies. Almost certainly, facilities are to blame. Private hospitals in the West Bank continue to run circles around the public options with many or most doctors and nurses in Palestinian communities spending time in both sectors of the health system. Highly educated and fantastically capable nurses and doctors perform admirably with adequate resources at their disposal. Without them, quite naturally, they do not.
Finally and most visibly, West Bank roads, fields, parks, and open spaces are in a deplorable state. Road construction within Palestine drags on interminably and cars age unnaturally quickly owed to the abuse they take on what might otherwise be serviceable roads and by-ways connecting Palestinian neighborhoods and towns. Rubbish litters the streets of many otherwise attractive and ancient communities. Historic buildings are neither serviced nor maintained. Rumor is that the nicest parks and cleanest streets are all in Ramallah and are maintained in exquisite condition everywhere where PA officials are likely to live or work. As with any number of other issues within the purview of the PA, the illusion of public service seems most important; the provision of actual aid to Palestine is secondary.
More damning still, all of the above seems most directly to benefit Israel itself as the existence of a pliable and compromised Palestinian Authority allows Israeli designs on Judea and Samaria (in their terminology) to proceed unabated. The separation wall (now ubiquitous in and along the western corridor of the West Bank), continued resource and land confiscation, and increasingly fascistic designs for the growing Palestinian community in the West Bank are rarely contested by the Palestinian leadership. Instead so-called “security coordination” between Israeli and Palestinian governments and police forces is the order of the day resulting in Palestinian officials carrying out Israeli geographic and political designs in the occupied territory. An effective strategy to oppose these designs has not been implemented because such a strategy simply does not exist. In this complicity, the PA seems to have abandoned their people’s interest in favor of their own. Fifty years on from the beginning of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, it is apparently better to rule indefinitely in name only than to make an honest, legitimate attempt at representative government.
In an informal discussion with a group of Palestinian Scouts in the Bethlehem District this summer, this author asked the assembled young people, a group of about 30 intelligent and service-oriented students aged 12 to 18, who among them had confidence that the PA had their best interests at heart. Among the spate of laughter and eye rolls, I scanned the crowd for a single raised hand. There were none. When asked whether they thought their future would be better or worse than the present, none replied in the positive. Israel, the continuing pressure of occupation, and the ongoing American support for it were quickly provided as reasons why. In equal measure, the corruption, callousness, and self-interest of their own government were cited as well.
Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” If this is true, and history certainly bears it out to be so, the next Palestinian uprising (in as much as one can be anticipated), might well be directed at PA leadership rather than at the increasingly secure and robust Israeli military and administrative machine that controls the Palestinian territory. A new government in Palestine might well bring about the change within West Bank communities required to alter the bleak political trajectory of this national group. At the least, it might bring a wave of hope and confidence so badly needed amongst this youngest generation of Palestinians. Such a change might actually result in the raising of a few hands when next a group of young people are asked to evaluate the performance of their own leadership.