Can the Palestinian Authority win back the trust of its people?

A revitalised PA can expose the Israeli claim that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, but promises of reform must be kept

Mourners watch the funeral procession of two Palestinians who died following an Israeli raid in Dura, south of Hebron, on Monday. The Palestinian Authority's failure to counter Israeli settlements or security crackdowns has left many West Bank residents disillusioned. AFP
Powered by automated translation

The contrast couldn’t be starker: on Monday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced a series of long-overdue reforms. These are to include restructuring government services, filling key diplomatic posts that have been left vacant for months, strengthening the PA’s judicial system and addressing the national debt.

The day before, a very different kind of policy was being articulated in Jerusalem. A large conference, which was attended by thousands of Israelis – including members of the country’s parliament and government ministers – heard calls for the re-establishment of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. This cannot be dismissed as a gathering of mere fringe elements; among those attending was far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who in March last year sparked outrage when he claimed that Palestinians were “an invention”. In all, 11 ministers at Sunday’s event committed themselves to rebuilding the illegal outposts in the Palestinian territory that were evacuated in 2005. If political fantasies about building an artificial island off the coast of Gaza are deeply unserious, then calling for a repeat of the disastrous policy of illegal settlement in Gaza is actually dangerous.

For many years, successive Israeli governments have claimed they lacked a political “partner” on the Palestinian side with whom to negotiate peace. There is a bitter irony to this given that Israel’s political and security establishment was content to see the Palestinian leadership divided into several antagonistic factions. This week’s announcement from the PA that it intends to put its house in order will expose that argument – but the promise of reform must be kept. Statements of intent are important, but real progress will be measured by tangible change that addresses the administration’s sclerotic governing structures. Some will also be cynical about the timing of the reform announcement, given it comes just two weeks after a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Nevertheless, a revitalised and consequential PA is not just important for “day after” planning in Gaza, whose people deserve capable and organised leadership after the appalling suffering they have been subjected to. In the West Bank, the PA – due to a multitude of deficiencies and ineffectiveness – has lost the trust of many Palestinians. This, coupled with a failure to counter egregious Israeli activities such as building more illegal settlements, turning a blind eye to settler violence and subjecting Palestinians to military law instead of civil courts, has left a power vacuum that is increasingly being filled by armed groups outside the control of the PA, including Hamas.

But it is important to acknowledge that presenting a plan for reform is an ambitious step in what is effectively wartime. There remain a lot of unknowns and caveats to the programme, particularly when it comes to implementation. There also remain much bigger gaps to bridge, such as organising a vote for a Palestinian electorate that has not been to the polls for nearly two decades. But in a time when there appears to be little reason for optimism in Palestine, the acknowledgement that things have to change is welcome.

Published: January 31, 2024, 3:00 AM