Can a reformed Palestinian Authority really rule Gaza and the West Bank?

The National talks to former PA advisers about the contentious US proposal

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah earlier this month. Reuters
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The “day after” in Gaza should include a path to the creation of an independent state run by one governing body – a reformed Palestinian Authority – in both the West Bank and the coastal enclave, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said.

Prior to the current war, securing an independent Palestinian state on territory Israel occupied in 1967 – a core outcome of long-standing US efforts to end the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict – was not high on President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda.

Since taking office, Mr Biden, who is running for re-election, has been more focused on the war in Ukraine, keeping China in check and integrating Israel into the region through peace agreements with its Arab neighbours.

Now, the Biden administration is hoping Mahmoud Abbas – the ageing, unpopular leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – will agree to reform the government so that it can administer the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip after the conflict ends as part of an effort towards the elusive two-state solution.

At Davos during the World Economic Forum last week, Mr Blinken said the reformed PA would need to operate as a government that delivers on the aspirations of the Palestinian people – and it would require Israel’s support.

“You’re talking about a governance, a government and a structure of governance that maximises the ability of the authority to actually deliver what the Palestinian people want and need,” Mr Blinken said.

100 days of Israel Gaza war – in pictures

He added that this would require “a permissive environment”.

“Even the most effective authority is going to have a lot of trouble if it’s got the active opposition of any Israeli government.”

The proposal is certainly rife with challenges, experts say, as in addition to Israel's refusal to get on board with the proposal, the PA – or simply “the authority” – has lost legitimacy and popularity among Palestinians amid three decades of failed US-sponsored peace efforts to deliver a state of their own.

US officials have said that the PA needs to be “revitalised and revamped”, which would include combating corruption, empowering civil society and supporting press freedom, among other reforms.

“I don't think the Biden administration right now has a clear concept of what revamping the Palestinian Authority means,” Ghaith Al Omari, who worked as an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team from 1999-2006, told The National.

“The Palestinian Authority is neither capable, nor is it desirable.”

The National spoke to an expert on the Palestinian Authority taking over Gaza

The National spoke to an expert on the Palestinian Authority taking over Gaza

On October 7, Israel declared war on Gaza after an attack by Hamas gunmen left 1,200 people dead and about 240 taken hostage.

More than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombardment in the months since and large parts of the coastal territory have been reduced to rubble. The majority of residents have been displaced and are facing famine and disease.

Meanwhile, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war will continue until Hamas is eradicated and the hostages are freed. Mr Netanyahu and ministers from his government oppose a two-state solution as well as Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza after the conflict ends.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu says Gaza war will last 'many months' – video

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu says Gaza war will last 'many months'

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu says Gaza war will last 'many months'

On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said that he continues to “strongly” oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state, as it would pose “an existential threat” to the state of Israel – putting him at odds with the Biden administration.

“We obviously see it differently,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said after the comments.

“We believe that the Palestinians have every right to live in an independent state with peace and security, and the President and his team is going to continue to work on that.”

Two key Israeli ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, staunch opponents of the two-state solution, could vote to dissolve Mr Netanyahu's coalition government if he took steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state, analysts say.

Other proposals for postwar Gaza have included Israel's reoccupation of the coastal enclave – counter to US policy – and the creation of a multinational coalition to administer civilian affairs and oversee reconstruction of the ravaged territory, which no nation has so far agreed to be part of.

“The US insisting or supporting the Palestinian Authority taking control over Gaza on the day after is, in many ways, a default solution because if you look at the options, they are very limited,” Mohammed Abu Nimer, professor at American University and an expert in conflict resolution, told The National.

“They're looking for an entity that can save the situation for the international community, and the leading candidate is the Palestinian Authority.

“The question that remains, what would be the role of Hamas?”

A poll conducted in December by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that only 7 per cent of Palestinians support a national unity government, which would include Hamas participation, under Mr Abbas after the war ends. Ninety per cent want Mr Abbas to resign.

Mr Abbas, 88, known colloquially as Abu Mazen, has been President for 18 years and has shown little sign that he is willing to step aside to allow for a new and younger generation to lead.

Established in 1993 as part of the Oslo Accords, the authority, from its base in Ramallah, administers civilian affairs and co-ordinates Israel’s security. They are deeply unpopular among average Palestinians who view them as corrupt collaborators.

“For us, the authority is at its worst a security contractor, and at its best a municipality,” Wafa Abdel Rahman, head of a feminist organisation in Ramallah, told The National.

“And this is supposed to change after the onslaught on Gaza? The expectation will be that the authority would continue to repress, arrest and perform its assigned role in the West Bank.

“And in Gaza, its role would be even worse.”

Safiye Quwar, a social worker who lives in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, said residents can usually tell when the Israeli army will conduct a raid that night and arrest young Palestinians, because starting that evening, PA police are completely out of sight.

“They're not doing anything for us here in the West Bank, how are they going to do anything in Gaza?” Ms Quwar said.

Meanwhile Hamas, which has been governing Gaza since 2007 after driving PA forces out of the tiny coastal enclave, has seen its popularity in the West Bank more than triple compared to three months prior, according to the PCPSR poll.

Arab and Gulf states say they are ready to support and invest in Gaza’s reconstruction postwar, but insist that it must include a pathway to a Palestinian state.

“There's a huge gap between where the Americans and the Israelis are with regard to the broad outlines of what the day after looks like – nobody knows how that's going to be overcome,” Khaled Elgindy, who worked as an adviser to the Palestinian leadership during negotiations from 2004 to 2009, told The National.

“From Abu Mazen’s standpoint, he wants to be relevant,” he said. “If he can reassert some relevance in Gaza, he could change his legacy.”

Still, observers note, after three decades of US-brokered peace initiatives failed to produce an independent Palestinian state and stability in the Middle East, Mr Abbas and the PA will remain hesitant to administer the territory after Israel pulls out.

“Nobody wants to be viewed as though they're coming into Gaza on the back of the Merkava, the Israeli tank,” Diana Buttu, a lawyer and analyst who served as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2000 to 2005, told The National.

“They don't want to be viewed as the security subcontractor again,” she said.

“They did it for 30 years now and it's brought them nothing but grief.”

Blinken meets Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah – video

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
Updated: March 14, 2024, 3:06 PM