Could the Palestinian Authority control Gaza?

Gaza credit: Shutterstock
Gaza credit: Shutterstock

Under Mahmoud Abbas, the PA looks incapable of succeeding Hamas but after an interim regime, the PA under a new leader is the way forward preferred by the US.

About two years ago, Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) embarked on a judicial reform of his own, one that would not put the reform in Hungary or Poland to shame. Unlike those countries, or the reform the Israeli government tried to pass at the beginning of the year, the PA reform passed with lightning speed, and almost without opposition. Abu Mazen got what he wanted: absolute control over appointing judges, in particular the appointment of the Supreme Constitutional Court’s president and deputies.

With the passing of the reform, the independence of a supreme court in the Palestinian Authority (the PA) was effectively abolished. Abbas deposed about 40 serving judges who were far from retirement age, mainly those who limited the powers of the executive authority. At the beginning of the year, Abbas appointed his former adviser Ali Mahana as president of the Supreme Court. Underlying the move was not only the veteran president’s desire to reinforce his powers, and fortify his position but also his advanced age, and especially, fear of his expected successor. If the 87-year-old president suddenly passes away, according to the Palestinian constitution, his replacement would be the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Although the Council was suspended by a presidential emergency order in 2007, immediately after Hamas took over Gaza, and was finally disbanded in 2018, the last person to serve in the position is Hamas member Aziz Dweik, who was appointed in the 2006 general elections. A ruling by a judge could have handed the PA presidency to a Hamas member.

"Until the reform, the judiciary was considered professional, apolitical and relatively independent," says Jonathan Byte a former intelligence officer in the Prime Minister's Office and now an analyst and commentator on the Middle East. "It gained credibility, and more than once showed the administration it had a backbone. It tried, and succeeded, to prevent Abu Mazen from appointing Ali Mahana as president of the Supreme Court in 2015, and stopped his attempt to lower the retirement age for judges from 70 to 60 to get rid of them. But as part of the reform, he succeeded in abolishing the seniority system, and took over the judicial selection committee. The reform passed without opposition, and the Palestinian Authority has long since become a one-man government without limits."

Throughout most of the years of Abbas's rule as president, the PA has become a shriveled, battered, corruption-ridden entity. But now, it has a role to fulfill. One day, assuming the war with Gaza will end with the destruction of Hamas' military and civilian infrastructure, and its leadership removed or killed, many view the PA as the natural heir. Reportedly, however, very few of those powers who will supposedly draft the post-Hamas map of the Middle East, see the PA going into Gaza in its current form.

This will require both a fundamental change of the governing structure in the Gaza Strip, and a reorganization of the PA. In fact, countries like the US, Egypt and Jordan see "the day after the war" as an opportunity to revive the two state concept, or at the very least, to re-establish the PA as the authority it was supposed to be, 30 years ago.

"A corrupt regime that is hates by its people "

"The Palestinian Authority is weak, but Abu Mazen was able to establish his rule in an absolute way," says Byte. "There’s no parliament and no opposition, not even from within, from the Fatah movement. Marwan Barghouti, who has the highest chance of being elected to the position of PA president, is sitting in Israeli prison serving five life sentences. Mohammed Dahlan, who tried to establish a movement that would compete with Abu Mazen, had lawsuits filed against him, and he was forced to go into exile in the UAE. Jibril Rajoub was pushed out of the PLO inner circle and into a relatively marginal role in local sports. True journalism has been silenced or eliminated, as happened, for example, to journalist Nizar Banat - nicknamed the Palestinian Khashoggi - who was murdered in prison."

As of today, the PA is an almost irrelevant body in the Middle East. Israel's disregard for it, while choosing to strengthen Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip, signing of the Abraham Accords without Palestinian involvement, alongside the corrupt and ineffective rule of Abbas in Judea and Samaria all greatly reduced popular support for the political body that controls the PA - Fatah - and increased Hamas’ power in places like Jenin and Nablus. Young people who had lost faith in the old movements joined a third alternative: the "Arin al-Usud" (Lion's Den) youth movement, though this, in the meantime, has been greatly weakened by Israeli military intervention.

"The Palestinian Authority, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in six months, is an authoritarian-repressive regime, corrupt, and hated by its people," explains Dr. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University. "The reason for its existence is that it is the main supplier of money and stability for the residents of Judea and Samaria. It is the largest employer in this region: a public sector of 30,000 security personnel and clerks. 64% of its budget is dependent on the Israeli economy, and comes from the money Israel levies on workers and goods."

From the public’s point of view, Milshtein says, the PA is almost irrelevant. "To put it mildly, it’s not popular. Opinion polls show the public hopes Abu Mazen will go away. He’s a disconnected leader, a kind of relic from a previous era. His associates are corrupt. They set their children up nicely, buy luxury apartments, and steal from the public coffers. In the Palestinian Authority, if you don’t have money from Ramallah ‘on tap,’ whether its aid funding coming from outside, or PA budgets, or the money that flows via the work permit brokers for working in Israel, you don't really benefit from the government. The average age in the Palestinian government ranges from 70 to 80, so the young people don't see themselves represented, and there’s a lot of frustration." In May, the World Bank warned that the Palestinian economy is over-exposed to an inflated public sector, generous pension system, and a huge fiscal deficit masking its debt, and posing a risk to its macroeconomic stability. The PA’s huge dependence on outside donations and aid foundations continues, while recommendations for comprehensive reforms, demanded by the World Bank each year, are never accepted.

The US will oversee - Saudi Arabia will invest

The fate of the PA depends on how the war ends and the way the Gaza Strip will be managed the day after. Noa Shusterman Dvir, Director of the Palestinian and Regional Research Programs at strategic consulting group MINDIsrael, believes that Israel has several post-war options: "In the first scenario, the war ends with Hamas in Gaza in a weakened configuration, but still controlling the Strip. Israel will do everything in its power to prevent this, but we must consider a situation where we will not succeed.

"Assuming that Hamas is indeed defeated, which is what Israel wants, there are several other, less likely, scenarios," Shusterman Dvir explains: "The ‘Somalia-zation’ of Gaza - a situation in which Israel withdraws summarily from the Strip, followed by a unilateral closure, and basically lets the local clans fight each other. It’s likely we would see a collapse of medical and sanitation infrastructure, and diseases would spread. Israel would probably not be interested in this scenario, in which restoring the Strip would be very difficult, and at the same time it would also be very difficult to stop a terrorist movement from renewed military escalation. The chances of a scenario in which the PA continues to control Gaza and be responsible for the rehabilitation of 2.3 million people who don’t want it there is also low. It is already clear to us through international channels that countries like Egypt, Jordan, the US, and prominent European countries, will not accept it."

The most likely scenario, according to Shusterman-Dvir, is the one the US is currently pushing for behind the scenes jointly with the Western and Arab countries - the establishment of a regional interim regime led by the US, with the participation of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, and possibly Saudi Arabia, until a handover to the PA after several years.

"In such an arrangement," says Shusterman Dvir, "Egypt may provide physical control over the territory, the UAE will provide political cover, Jordan will provide the connection and coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia may play the part of restoring the economy - perhaps it will even come to the conclusion that building a port in Gaza also serves it. Some countries have already expressed their readiness for such a program, because they understand the challenge, and they don’t want to see Hamas or Israel remaining in the Strip, and because they understand very well that the Palestinian Authority won’t go back there at present. Of course, there are quite a few dilemmas that need to be resolved, such as the scope of Israeli military action after the withdrawal from Gaza, the policing powers of the international force, what the Gazan educational system reform will look like, and how the Americans will leverage all this to continue promoting the two-state solution."

Dr. Ido Zelkovitz, an expert on Palestinian politics and head of the Middle East Studies Program at the Jezreel Valley Academic College, believes that the chances of Israel ending the war without overthrowing the Hamas government are low. "The analysts talk about stepping back from the aim of destroying Hamas and its institutions, but much here hangs in the balance. Israel's entry into the Abraham Accords and the willingness of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to strengthen relations with us stems from our image of a regional power and an agent of progress. This position must not, therefore, be subjected to critical discussion. The day after the war, Israel must formulate a way for the Gaza border residents to return home, live safely, and peacefully, as part of our victory. When you look closely at the relationship between the military forces, between Israel and the many jihadist elements in the Gaza Strip, there is no level playing field. Israel must and should triumph militarily, and it has the tools for that purpose."

Zelkovitz calls one possible scenario for the day after defeating Hamas, the "hybrid scenario"; bringing the PA back to Gaza supported by an international military force participated in by NATO powers under US command to oversee its actions, and allowing counter terrorist activity, while creating a corridor for IDF action. "The optimal scenario from the point of view of the Americans requires returning the PA to the Strip and renewing public unity between Gaza and the West Bank. But it also requires the military submission of Hamas and the construction, training and arming of a new force for the PA, which will be responsible, among other things, for thwarting and preventing terrorism, while granting Israel the freedom to conduct raids. This is not another UNIFIL, but a significant international military force that will operate under US command and in coordination with Israel. The Americans have experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, so this mission is not unfamiliar to them."

Dr. Ali Abu Al-Awar, a researcher of Israeli-Palestinian relations and a member of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, tells Globes that "No Palestinian leader will return to Gaza riding on top of Israeli tanks. However, a regional solution that would include a political settlement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel would enable the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza within a few years." In any case, he believes, neither Israel, nor an interim government sponsored by Egypt, nor an elected local council, will be able to eliminate Hamas in Gaza.

Milshtein adds that the disconnect between the Palestinian public and its government is not only the result of Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and the murder of hundreds of Fatah members and security forces. "The young people, who make up half of the residents of the Strip, grew up in a reality where the Palestinian Authority does not exist. They don’t know it and don’t owe it anything. But more than that, there really is no great love between the Gaza residents and the residents of the PA, even though they all define themselves as Palestinians. During the last six years, as part of the fight against Hamas, the PA imposed many sanctions on payments to public sector workers and pension recipients in the Strip and limited fuel, water, and electricity payments, which was damaging. Ramallah isn’t ready to take control and doesn’t want it. The PA barely has control in Judea and Samaria. There are areas near Jenin and Tulkarm that they don't control, so would you will let them control 2.3 million people? And suppose that Blinken pressures Abu Mazen to sign a contract with the Fatah movement in Gaza; which of the two Fatah factions in Gaza will he go with? The one that may side with him or the one that sides with Mohammed Dahlan, the former commander of the security apparatus in Gaza on behalf of the PA, who was expelled by Hamas."

The man who grew up near Deif and Sinwar

Dahlan's name has come up in the media over the last few days, as well as by many of those involved in shaping "the day after" Middle East. Dahlan, currently living in exile in the UAE, was interviewed a few days ago for the first time in years, by The Economist. At the same time, news reports came out that he was providing humanitarian aid to the residents of the Gaza Strip.

Dahlan was born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, not far from where Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif also grew up. He served as the head of the security forces in the Gaza Strip during the Hamas takeover and was blamed for Fatah’s failure to protect the area. After the coup, Dahlan moved to the West Bank and remained a senior figure in the political arena, but in 2010, rumors spread that he was making moves to oust Abbas. In response, he was removed from all his positions at Fatah, and forced into exile in the UAE. Even today, he cannot return to the PA due to two prison sentences handed down in his absence for defaming the government and theft.

However, his long stay in Abu Dhabi has made him one of the most influential Palestinians in the Middle East, both as an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood and an adviser on Islamic terrorism matters to the UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and as someone who maintains a direct dialogue with the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Dahlan has connections with Israel and with personalities in Fatah, and has supporters mainly in the refugee camps in Gaza as well as in the West Bank, partly due to donations he helps transfer from the UAE. However, he is considered persona non grata in the Palestinian territories: "He cannot return to Hamas's Gaza because he is wanted; as head of the security apparatus, he was responsible for killing Hamas members," says Milshtein. "In Judea and Samaria, he’s not really popular, except for maybe in some refugee camps."

However, many point to Dahlan as someone who can pull the strings behind the scenes, help rebuild Gaza, and perhaps even establish a technocratic government from afar, with the help of personalities like Majid Abu Shamala and Samir Mashharawi. The scenario of the technocratic governing body, appointing temporary officials and experts to establish civil infrastructure, is among the most under discussion, not only for the reconstruction of Gaza project, but also for the PA overall. Dr. Zelkovitz, for example, sees Dahlan as someone who may help with this: "A scenario in which a local actor would work with the forces in the Strip, working to restore it with the backing of international support is absolutely possible," he says. "It is not impossible that NATO, for example, will be charged with guarding the borders and thwarting terrorism, which would allow Israel freedom of action. A person like Dahlan, who is accepted by the Arab leadership, can support the establishment of an alternative authority. He has what’s called shaabiya, meaning, popular support in large parts of the Strip."

Dr. Harel Chorev, historian, expert on Palestinians, and head of the Middle East Network Analysis Desk at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, claims a civil organizational structure exists that can already handle business health, welfare, education, and infrastructure. "There are 60,000 people in Gaza who receive a salary from the Palestinian Authority: 30,000 who were employees of the Palestinian Authority before Hamas took over, and another 30,000 pensioners. When the war ends, there is no doubt that many of their institutions will be destroyed, and this internal structure can help rebuild.

Technocrats instead of "The Rais"

The war and increased international involvement in "day after" planning also leads those powers to leverage the opportunity and exert pressure on the PA as regards correct governance, and its political processes vis-a-vis Israel. There is no doubt that the Biden administration, which is losing ground among the Muslim and Progressive electorates in the US, would like to see an accelerated political process, perhaps even some kind of agreement between Israel and the PA, before the November 2024 elections.

Apparently, Abbas is still the PA strong man, having consolidated his rule over 18 years, and becoming a sort of solo ruler. Should Abbas step down, his natural successors will be officials from the old guard, chiefly the duo already flanking him today: General Intelligence Service head Major General Majed Faraj, and Secretary General of the Executive Committee Hussein Al-Sheikh. The two, considered closest in the PA to Abu Mazen, complement one another: Faraj is the most powerful man in the West Bank with control over the Palestinian security apparatus, while al-Sheikh holds the civil and economic portfolios.

Faraj (60), born in the Dheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem, was among the Fatah leaders in the first Intifada. He was arrested several times, and spent about six years in an Israeli prison. After being appointed head of the General Intelligence Service in the West Bank, he began having more contact with Israel. Today Faraj is one of those closest to Abbas and his Qatar-based son Yasser, has accompanied him for more than a decade, and is busy with security coordination with Israel.

After the death of Saeb Erekat in 2020, Abbas appointed Al-Sheikh (62) as Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee in May 2022; the second most important position in the organization. Al-Sheikh is also viewed as a Hamas opponent, and is responsible for contacts with Israel in the civil sphere. He speaks fluent Hebrew, and knows senior Israeli military officers and politicians very well.

According to Shusterman-Dvir, a Faraj - Al-Sheikh coalition should have seemingly been guaranteed. Both maintain close ties with Israel, are acceptable to the US, and are in continuous contact with representatives of the US State Department and CIA. As far as Israel is concerned, joint rule of the two is the preferred option. However, their popularity among the Palestinian populace is low: they are seen as collaborators with Israel, and hubs of government corruption. Al-Sheikh is also accused of sexual harassment.

According to Milshtein, the idea of rehabilitating Gaza through the establishment of a technocratic mechanism is also currently being proposed to the PA in Judea and Samaria. The idea was led in recent years by Salam Fayyad, the former PA finance minister and PA Prime Minister, who was deposed in 2012, and currently resides in Princeton, New Jersey. "The time he spent at the IMF led him to initiate a program that dictates growth from below: establishing civil institutions that will, in turn, lead to a change of government at the top. Fayyad has acceptance in the international arena, which remembers well the tremendous economic growth he brought about between 2007 and 2012, and was also felt in the refugee camps. Israel would be happy to see him lead the Palestinian bureaucratic apparatus."

However, Fayyad said in an interview this week that he no longer sees himself in a leadership role in the PA. Dahlan, in an interview with The Economist, emphasized the need for a prime minister leading a parliamentary government as critical to the restoration of the PA, instead of the existing presidential regime. "The time of the heroes passed away with Arafat" he said, but denied that he intends to take the position.

"Generation Z wants to live well "

Samer Abdelrazzak Sinijlawi, chairman of the East Jerusalem Development Fund, and a Fatah member close to Dahlan, tells "Globes" that "Today's PA has become a puppet of the Ba'ath Party in Syria or Iraq. The time has come to restore the PA, and this may be a golden opportunity to do so, even without the Americans who’ve lost power in the Middle East following the recent events."

Sinijlawi contends that, given the reality of the situation, a technocratic mechanism which includes rebuilding infrastructures to provide services to citizens, youth movements, free economic, and academic institutions, and an independent media, is an absolute necessity. "There is a need to re-establish the PA, and restore the economy, so that it will not be a humanitarian aid economy, but one that stands on its own merits," he says. "The new mechanism that will be established will hold elections, re-establish the parliament and restore the independent judicial system. After that, we will have to connect with the Israelis - go back to seriously connecting with the leadership, the media, the academy - and start seeing them as partners."

As an alternative, Sinijlawi cites Nasser al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat's nephew, and former PA foreign minister, as the most likely to head this mechanism. Qudwa was removed from Fatah's central committee in May 2021, after he established a joint list with Marwan Barghouti to challenge Abu Mazen. Although Israel does not favor Barghouti, he does enjoy popular support within the PA; polls conducted last year showed him to be the most popular replacement for Abbas, and he has not been touched by the corruption that has tainted PA officials over the past 20 years. Although Qudwa and Barghouti are not as close these days as they once were - Qudwa maintains good relations with Dahlan, and talks with Israeli and Arab representatives - he does benefit from his partner’s popularity.

Shusterman-Dvir notes that the US is already exerting pressure on Israel to allow restoration of both the PA and Gaza. "The Americans and the Egyptians will bind the restoration of the PA to limiting settler violence, limiting expansion of the settlements, halting construction of new settlements, and encouraging and establishing joint economic growth levers, improving infrastructure in Judea and Samaria, including water and electricity, roads to allow freedom of trade and movement that will facilitate the Palestinian economy, and improving law and order enforcement capabilities in the PA. The intention is to establish mechanisms that will provide security to the Palestinians, while ensuring they do not feel this is an Israeli mechanism. However, Israel will not be able to accept this arrangement without requiring security, and freedom of action in PA territory." Palestinian elections will have to be held in both East Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and include only those parties that agree to international elections oversight. Hamas will not be able to participate.

"If we hold elections today, or in another year on the Palestinian side, and a new, young leadership comes in that gives the Palestinians hope, with an Israeli partner who says he wants less control over the Palestinians, this leadership will win the majority," Sinijlawi concludes. "Our young generation, Generation Z, they want to live well and are not interested in violence. We don't need to sit with the Americans for that. I was put in prison in the first Intifada when I was 15 years old, for 15 years. If you ask me what I would do if I only had one hour, I would prefer to meet with an Israeli Knesset Member, and not waste it on the US ambassador, because the real conversation should be done with the Israelis."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on November 14, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Gaza credit: Shutterstock
Gaza credit: Shutterstock
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