Gaza exposes deep challenges for hollowed-out Palestinian Authority

Within hours of a deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas abruptly cancelled a meeting with Joe Biden in Jordan to rush home and accuse Israeli forces of being behind the carnage.

But when Palestinians rallied in the occupied West Bank that evening to voice their anger at the killings — which Israel insists were the result of a malfunctioning rocket fired by Palestinian militants — it was Abbas who became the focus of their ire, with protesters demanding “the fall of the president”.

As the war between Hamas and Israel has thrust the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the spotlight, Abbas has become a key point of contact for western and Arab officials as they seek to prevent the fighting from spreading, and to counter the militant ideology of Hamas.

But the surge of international engagement for the long-marginalised leader has come at a time when the 87-year-old’s domestic legitimacy is at an all-time low, and the writ of his Palestinian Authority — which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank — is looking increasingly brittle.

Abbas has been the key Palestinian interlocutor for the international community since succeeding the late Yasser Arafat in 2004. Over that time he has continued to back a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as more radical rivals, such as Hamas, have fought multiple wars with Israel.

But as the dream of an independent Palestinian state has been extinguished over the past two decades, the PA’s influence has waned. Many Palestinians have come to view it as at best impotent and at worst a facilitator of Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian land.

“Abbas has to choose,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who previously worked with the Palestinian leader. “Is he going to be the leader of the Palestinian people? Or is he going to be the leader of the PA?”

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas meets US secretary of state Antony Blinken in the Jordanian capital Amman on Tuesday October 17 © Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters

For many, the frustration with Abbas has only been reinforced by his lacklustre response to Israel’s ferocious siege of Gaza in the days since Hamas militants carried out the deadliest attack inside Israel since its founding in 1948, which has been accompanied by a surge of killings of Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli forces and settlers.

“[The PA and Abbas] are doing nothing to protect us. Every Palestinian is fully aware that we don’t have an army, that we don’t have any way to bring down these [Israeli] F-16s,” said Buttu. “But the president does have the ability to speak . . . and since October 7, he’s done virtually nothing.”

Analysts say that a big reason for the loss of public faith in the PA — and its subsequent loss of control of parts of the West Bank such as the restive cities of Jenin and Nablus — is the relentless pressure from successive Israeli governments bent on expanding Jewish settlements in the territory.

The PA was founded as a step towards an independent Palestinian state that would have its heartland in the West Bank. But in recent years Israeli settlements there have grown to house more than 500,000 people. Settler violence against Palestinians has also surged, according to the UN. Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline new government, in which ultranationalist settlers hold key posts, has ratcheted up the pressure on the PA’s finances, withholding funds it collects on behalf of the authority.

But the PA’s problems are also of its own making. It is widely seen as corrupt, while West Bank schools and other services have been frequently disrupted by strikes. Its failure to hold presidential or parliamentary elections since 2006 has added to popular frustration. A poll this year found that for the first time, a majority of Palestinians thought the dissolution of the PA would be in their interest.

“The governance performance has been so poor,” said Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Birzeit university near Ramallah. “This has added to the decline in support.”

The crumbling of the PA’s authority has coincided with a surge in violence in the West Bank, with Israeli forces conducting near nightly raids in the territory in the past year following a series of attacks by Palestinians in Israel. This year has already become the deadliest in the territory since the UN started collecting data in 2005, with Israeli forces killing 189 Palestinians and Palestinians killing 25 Israelis.

An Israeli military bulldozer digs up roads in the centre of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank © Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/Sipa

Part of the reason western leaders are scrambling to engage with the PA — the leaders of the US, UK and France have all held calls with Abbas in recent days — is to bolster the authority in the hope that it can act as a stabilising force among the Palestinians.

“If it’s not the PA, then who? It could be another Hamas 2.0. What we’ve said is eradicating Hamas might not be realistic because it’s an ideology,” said an Arab official. “The only way to deal with ideology is to provide Palestinians with an alternative with hope, and if that’s not provided you will end up with a similar crisis in one or two years from now.”

The fear is that if the conflict in Gaza escalates in to the West Bank “then it could be the spark that would light a fire across the region”, the Arab official said. 

A western official said that beyond shoring up the PA in the West Bank, some in Israel appeared to be contemplating a role for the authority in Gaza — if Israel succeeds in its goal of destroying Hamas’ presence in the strip.

Hamas has ruled the coastal enclave since it ousted the PA in conflict between the factions in 2007.

But given the PA’s weakness and unpopularity, and the long history of hostility between the leaderships of the West Bank and Gaza, diplomats are sceptical that any attempt to re-establish the PA’s position in Gaza would succeed.

The alternative to Hamas was “most likely [a group such as] Islamic Jihad, which is more extreme, more difficult to deal with than Hamas, most likely only dealing with the Iranians”, said the Arab official.

“[The international community] have tried [propping the PA] so many times, it’s not going to work.”

Palestinian analysts agree. “There is no way that the PA can regain Gaza via Israeli tanks,” said Khatib. “It would not work . . . Even if there is no Hamas, there will be others, because the reality of the occupation, which is very brutal, will bring a reaction from other groups.”

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