Facing the Deep Crisis: How Will the Palestinian Authority Meet the Challenges of the New Reality?

This article is a review of the process that Palestine is entering into, that is, the deep crisis that includes both political and economic ramifications. This crisis is expected to continue for many years with no light at the end of the tunnel and no prospects for resolution using the old tools proposed by the Oslo Accords. This necessitates the opening of a general discussion on multiple levels to explore the close relationship between the political track and economic performance, redefining the role of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and its official and popular constituencies, whether in the development process or in providing the requisites for building the necessary economic resilience in the next phase.

This is probably the first time Palestinian reality is brutally and bitterly confronted with the results of the peace process — without the process itself or its sponsors offering any inherent solution. The Palestinian economy faced a profound crisis in the years 2001-04 with the second intifada. It also faced another intense crisis following the 2006 elections and the 2007 coup in the Gaza Strip. However, the political track remained under American/international auspices, and the framework and limitations of Oslo remained the only tracks that the economic train could ride on.

The End of American Auspices for the Process

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent decisions to boycott the American administration and reject all of its resolutions pertaining to Jerusalem, settlements, the funding of UNRWA and others, are a clear indicator of the end of Palestinian acceptance of American auspices, given the absence of an Israeli partner in a relevant peace process. The harmony between the new American and Israeli positions in light of weak and muffled Arab positions reflects the outlines of the new alliances formed at the international and regional levels regarding the Palestinian question.

This courageous Palestinian stance in the international arena was not accompanied on the national level by a re-opening of a discussion on the political and institutional role of the PA in light of these new positions. Security coordination has continued, as well as the commitment to refrain from opening a broad confrontation with Israel and the United States in international fora.

Without delving into a description of the nature of the current clash between the PA and its decisions on the one hand, and the various stakeholders in the peace process on the other, the confidence of the Palestinian street was strongly shaken concerning the existence of an effective international framework underwriting the Oslo process that it was hoped would lead to the end of the occupation and the establishment of an independent state. Israel and the U.S. last year launched a wide attack that had a great impact on the limited wins that the Palestinian people had achieved within the Oslo process, and a new accelerated phase of eroding Palestinian rights at the national and international levels has begun (accompanied by Arab silence, if not abetted by Arab regimes).

What Role Should the Palestinian Authority Play under the New Regime?

If we try to answer the strategic question of the PA’s role within the framework of the Oslo Accords in connection with the struggle to end the occupation, we will find that this role has been formed partly based on signed agreements and partly de facto, added on later outside these accords. This led to the transformation of the PA into a new social and institutional reality in the country, making it the new address for the Palestinian people, despite all the limitations and obstacles that the Oslo Accords placed in its way.

While the peace process was aimed at reaching interim agreements that would constitute the basis for a separation from Israel’s control and occupation, the actual track after 25 years has led to the dependence of the PA itself and its leadership, with very limited maneuvering power, on what Israel extends or withdraws at whim. Oslo has become a “sickle” that we swallowed: We can neither remove it nor digest it in light of the current conditions of the Arab and international communities. Nor can we continue what we started in order to reach the hoped-for end.

The goal of establishing the PA was building state institutions to provide the best services for its citizens and provide all the requisites for building national resilience during the interim period. All of this was to be achieved through a commitment to the signed agreements, until an effective and capable Palestinian state was established.

The tug and pull continued between what Israel wanted from this authority and the Palestinian positions, both official and popular. The result was a weak self-rule authority playing a prominent security role that serves Israel, just as Israel wanted it to be, rather than as the Palestinians wanted it to be: a tool for the empowerment and building of the national Palestinian dream and its state. Positions and estimations related to the peace process have oscillated between these two roles since the second intifada to this day.

The point of contact between the project of building the state and that of ending the occupation lies in the PA refraining from limiting its function and role to providing basic services to its citizens, and transforming itself into a means to promote its people’s resilience and manage the struggle on the ground, enabling them to confront the occupation and the settlers. If and when the PA defines its tasks on this basis, it will be using Oslo (despite all its constraints) as an effective and legitimate national tool for struggle, enabling the Palestinian people to continue with their struggle for years to come.

However, if the PA loses sight of its goal and becomes a tool for strangling and constraining its people and civil society organizations, trying to control and impose its hegemony on popular initiatives; using its authority against the democratic process and against demonstrations and organized and ad hoc popular action; and resorting to using its national security apparatus to impose surveillance and control on popular will at the time when it cannot provide basic security for its people against the settlers or the occupation army in its cities — then the primary and most important task will be to save the PA from itself.

Therefore, it is unacceptable for the government to become a tool to weaken Palestinian capacities, whether those of its youth or institutions or the civil society in general, despite the flaccidity and weakness of its structures and leaders. If the task of the PA is to control its constituency by legislating laws for charitable organizations or regulating the use of social media to “control” the funding of these NGOs, thus weakening them and eventually closing them down, then who will take initiative and continue to lead the popular struggle against the occupation? And who will march in Jerusalem and rise up in Ramallah? Who will defend the people in the villages of Mughayer, Beita, Salem, Al Khan al Ahmar and elsewhere?

The PA Should Play an Empowering Role

The track record of the PNA over the past 25 years shows that the successive PA governments, to varying degrees, did not recognize the PA’s role of “empowering” its people, even though it remains the main justification for the continued popular recognition of the legitimacy of Oslo. It is in the Palestinian national interest to preserve and develop the PA institutions as an important official tool to help, support and assist perseverance and an effective popular resistance against the occupation, rather than handing them over to Israel. This is in fact the core of its expanding role in the next phase.

At the same time as we recognize the difficulty of this new role, given the conditions of the Oslo Accords, this article focuses on depicting an intricate relationship between what the PA can and cannot do. No one has a panacea or an exhaustive recipe for this relationship; it is the framework regulating the program of any Palestinian government capable of contributing efficiently to supporting and developing the Palestinian struggle.

The extent and degree of aggravation of the relationship between the PA and the occupation authority and its apparatus should be the focus of Palestinian political action in the coming phase, on both the international and local levels within the framework of expanding or limiting security and economic coordination tasks. The Palestinian people will remain, with their youth, organizations and political parties, the only reference and guarantor of the resilience and perseverance of our people under all circumstances and at all times.

Within this context, it becomes important to reformulate the relationship between the PLO and the PA into a complementary one: The PA is a tool of empowerment and building institutions and promoting resilience on the ground, and the PLO is the tool for steering the political struggle and representing the Palestinian people.

Five Steps for Building a Resilient Palestinian National Economy

At the first stage of the establishment of the PA, the market economy was considered to be the dominant economy, and this economy managed to develop and launch the capacity of the Palestinian private sector with effectiveness and vigor, developing an efficient infrastructure in various areas such as telecommunications, electricity, banking, stock market and the industrial and real estate sectors. This, of course, in no way underestimates the effort that the government exerted in its targeted intervention to assist the national economy, particularly in areas behind the Separation Wall and
in some areas referred to as Area C. Examples of this include supporting the Old City in Hebron, establishing irrigation water networks and expanding and maintaining artesian wells on various occasions.

Our success in building the resilience of the Palestinian national economy and infrastructure will be the basis for our success in the political battle. We need to own adequate economic tools and guide them to serve the project of ending the occupation, keeping the door open to allow market forces to work at their utmost capacity within the framework of adequate legislation and checks and balances in this context. This will be the key to a developmental partnership between the PA and the Palestinian private sector targeting the development of the interim strategy for building internal structures. During this phase it is also possible to redefine the strategy to focus on five main targets constituting the framework for the government, the private sector and civil society, as follows:

  1. Build a dynamic state by establishing a strong infrastructure and supporting local products and exports, decreasing consumption and guiding investment and banking loans to productive projects, as well as supporting the expansion of the industrial and agricultural sectors.
  2. Hinder the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and de-legitimize the settler colonial regime. This requires an extensive strategy in so-called Area C and intensifying efforts on the international and regional levels to transform this strategy into practical plans and programs for the government, the private sector and civil society organizations.
  3. Rectify the government’s relationship with the occupation authority and its apparatus to re-balance the outputs of the Oslo Accord, primarily in the security and economic agreements.
  4. Consolidate the tools of social protection, including addressing poverty and unemployment and finding mechanisms and institutions that guarantee greater stability for production processes, such as agricultural guarantee schemes, programs to secure exports, political risk insurance and monitoring of job markets, etc.
  5. Promote participatory development. This includes building the widest possible democracy on the ground and utilizing the potential of youth, NGOs and legislative supervision tools. It also entails working hard to fight corruption and establish an independent, clean and efficient judicial system and creating creative and strong human resources. In this context we need to reaffirm the need to build the structures of popular organizations such as trade and professional unions, CSOs, private sector associations and youth and women’s associations, removing the flaccidity that has afflicted them. Through this process we can spark hope and a new spirit among the people by expanding grassroots participation based on a commitment to regular elections, redefining their national and civic role and expanding the base of their tools and impact. There is no doubt that reviving civic participation gains importance through an elected legislative council as the most important tool in approving government strategies and plans as well as supervision of those plans.

What Is Needed Is a Comprehensive Mobilization of Palestinian Capacities

It is clear that the above-mentioned list of objectives, even if realized, will not be able to resolve the main internal predicament pertaining to the geographic, political and economic unity of the homeland and its impact on weakening the Palestinian political position and deterioration in the performance of the Palestinian economy. The rupture in internal political relations leaves in the task of building the resilience and perseverance of the national economy an open wound that cannot be healed and will not be achieved in a true and comprehensive manner. Regardless of the seriousness of all stakeholders in ending the current division as a national priority to save our cause, and until that is achieved, I honestly believe that the task of rebuilding the basic infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, especially in the fields of water and electricity, will remain a national priority that should be realized by the PA. The humanitarian situation, the life and livelihood of the Palestinian people in Gaza, cannot be conditional upon finding a way to mend the rift between Fateh and Hamas. Twelve years have passed since the deterioration of this relationship, and the constraints on regional and international interventions as a result of this chasm places many obstacles in front of any real Palestinian national reconciliation.

The most vital necessity at this point is to find adequate and acceptable mechanisms for intervention, focusing on the basic needs for life; to exert more pressure on the leadership of Hamas; and to mobilize the Palestinian public to confront this division, all naturally within the framework of the Palestinian authority represented by the PA.

The objective of this process is a comprehensive mobilization of Palestinian capacities, in the Diaspora and inside Palestine, to expand control over resources, and start an economic structural reform program that will serve, support, and act as a source of strength for the Palestinian national cause. This is a provisional program for building on the internal level and developing other elements of strength and resilience of the Palestinian national economy.