Part IV (of IV): Palestinian Politics and Governance

Governance is about the structuring of rules and norms to permit policies and actions to be sustained, regulated and held accountable. It is the system in terms of which an organization is controlled and managed in a responsible and responsive way. How is it even possible to have such a system when the polity itself is fragmented into so many geographic parts, occupied by a regime with which it has fought many wars and is so deeply internally politically and socially divided?

The biggest issues confronting the Palestinians are least under its control. Take the issue of refugees. It is an article of faith of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the liberation movement for Palestinians, that the refugees that fled or were forced to flee from Palestine from what became Israel in 1948 – approximately 720,000 – and their descendants, have a right to return, not to a country called Palestine but to their homes. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 resolved that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

Note the following:

  • UNGA resolutions, unlike ones passed by the UN Security Council, are not legally binding;
  • The resolution was conditional upon the returnees being willing to live at peace with their neighbours; this in itself contained an apparent inherent contradiction if neighbours is interpreted not simply as people living next door and down the street but as living in peace “with Israel,” which inherently meant on terms agreeable to Israel;
  • The resolution was commendatory – “should” – and depended on a political authority granting permission for that return – namely Israel;
  • The resolution at the time did not apply to those born outside Palestine;
  • The return was to take place as early as practical and not 73 years after the exile;
  • The recommendation was also that, for those who chose not to return, compensation should be paid;
  • The resolution did not name Israel as the compensating body but rather the governments or authorities responsible for the exodus and, at the very least in part, the five invading Arab armies that rejected partition and went to war against Israel and are held to be the responsible parties by some.

Since 1948, the resolution has been interpreted to be return by right and not by permission, to include the descendants of the original refugees and to be one of the core issues in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But humans have rights only as members of states. And the people in both Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are mostly stateless as are many Palestinian refugees in the diaspora after over seven decades.

In terms of governance, the problem is that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) through the Palestine National Council (PNC) represents all Palestinians, including those in Israel and outside of the West Bank and Gaza; the Palestinian Authority (PA) governs the West Bank and Gaza. Further, with Oslo, the PA gradually displaced the PNC as the key governing structure responsible for negotiations with Israel and the PNC was allowed to wither away. Thus, there is a significant chasm between the body responsible for representing the refugees and the one representing the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

There is a second fundamental incongruence in Palestinian governance. Political governance is about control and management, about the exercise of formal authority and coercive power. But Gaza has been under siege ever since Hamas won control over Gaza in fair elections in 2006. The West Bank is under occupation with only a very limited area, 18% of the West Bank, under Palestinian administrative and security control (Area B), the main urban population of Palestinians. Area A which is mainly rural and where administrative authorities have to deal with house demolitions and incursions on Palestinian lands by Israeli settlers, lacks any PA security apparatus.  Further, the largest part of the West Bank, Area C, is under Israeli military and administrative control and this is where creeping annexation has mostly taken place with the settlement of perhaps 450,000 Israelis and an exodus of as many as 400,000 Palestinians into other areas of the West Bank.

And that does not address the issue of East Jerusalem. When the territory to be governed and the people to be represented are so fragmented in organizational terms, how is it possible to have a governing structure which is fair, representative and also functional? Quite aside from their own historical problems, how is it possible for such a governing entity under the political pressure of occupation to be anything but complex, convoluted and dysfunctional? However, these remain relatively easy problems compared to actual effects of occupation on everyday governance when it is Israel that limits free travel, largely prevents free movement back and forth between the West Bank and Gaza, and controls exits and sets conditions for reentry.

Is it any wonder that the PA is viewed by the large number of young voters who have not heretofore cast a ballot for the PA as a subcontractor of oppression as well as corrupt and dysfunctional? And then there is Jerusalem where Israel is obligated by Oslo II to facilitate Palestinian voting for the PA. But Palestinians cannot campaign in Jerusalem. Their civil society organizations have been allowed to die. Jerusalem as a centre of Palestinian life has been cancelled and the recognition of Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel by the US was not even the icing on the cake but simply lighting the candles pushed into the cake.

None of my discussion heretofore paid any attention to the Oslo protocols on the economy which authorized Israel to collect taxes, Israel currency to be used as the means of exchange and which effectively made Gaza and the West Bank satellites of the prosperous and growing Israeli metropolis. In effect, even with free and fair elections, even if corruption is eliminated, even if the forces of fragmentation are overcome, the challenges to good governance remain formidable. With physical barriers to movement, separate controlled roads, separation walls, the governing structure can only operate in a piecemeal fashion. 

At the same time, the PA is a major employer in the West Bank and has a disproportionate influence on the economy. Further, it is beholden to foreign donors more than its own constituents. Even the NGOs are foreign-oriented as each attempts to secure funding from abroad. Add these to the problems of geographic and political fragmentation and one might be surprised to find any effective governance at all.

Of course, it does not help that the head of the PA, Abbas, administratively operates by depriving dissidents of percs and appointments, by exiling some with the help of Israeli authorities and having others arrested. How can an authoritarian-style ruler be a leader responsive and responsible to the people? How is good governance possible when Abbas has done so much to undermine the existence of an independent judicial system? How is it possible to have sound governance in the face of such internal inadequacy, overwhelming challenges and external controls by an enemy polity?

  • It is no longer so easy to suspect that elections will not take place or that the Israelis or Americans will stop the elections, though many eminent Americans argue they should not take place. For example, Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Council on Foreign Relations and Deputy National Security Adviser to George W. Bush, claims that it would be far better if the elections do not take place at this time. His wariness is understandable given the presence of so many convicted terrorists and hardliners according to critics of the elections, not only in the PFLP list, but especially in Hamas’ candidate list:
  •  Jamal Muhammad Farah al-Tawil: A senior Hamas military commander in the West Bank believed to have planned multiple suicide bombings, including a 2001 car bombing in a Jerusalem pedestrian mall that killed twelve Israelis and wounded nearly two hundred. In various instances he adopted political and social welfare roles to facilitate and conceal his military activities. This included establishing the Ramallah branch of the al-Islah Charitable Society “to camouflage the activities of the prisoners committee and enable it to expand and receive donations from Islamic charitable societies abroad,” according to a December 2004 bulletin by the Center for Special Studies. He was arrested for militant activities in April 2002, October 2013, and July 2020.
  • Jamal Abd al-Shamal Abu Hija: Arrested in 2002 and sentenced to nine life sentences for involvement in at least six bombings, including the 2002 Meron Junction attack in north Israel that killed nine and the 2001 Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem that killed fifteen. He is number eight on the Hamas electoral list.
  • Muhammad Abu Tir (Abu Musab): Has spent more than thirty-seven years in jail for militant activities, including service in Hamas’s armed wing, membership in a terrorist organization, and distribution of weapons. In January 2016, he was arrested on suspicion of receiving funds from Hamas leaders abroad and helping members transfer cash to the West Bank to finance terrorist attacks. He was arrested again in April 2017 and March 2019 on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity, and again in January 2020. He is number two on the Hamas electoral list.
  • Abdul Khaleq al-Natsheh: Headed the Hebron branch of the Hamas-affiliated al-Islah Charitable Society and served as Hamas spokesman in that city. The extensive terrorist infrastructure that he reportedly oversaw there was responsible for planning and executing various operations targeting Israelis, including an April 2002 attack in the West Bank settlement of Adora and a June 2002 attack in Carmei Zur settlement. Natsheh is number ten on the Hamas electoral list.
  • Nahed al-Fakhouri: Reportedly involved in recruiting suicide bombers in Hebron and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Upon being released as part of the 2011 prisoner exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he was instructed to remain in Gaza.
  • Nasser Abdul Jawad: Among the founders of the al-Qassam Brigades in the West Bank, and one of forty Hamas members arrested in 2006 after the Shalit kidnapping. He was arrested again in 2011 and January 2018; the latter case resulted in an eighteen-month jail sentence.
  • Khaled Yousef Abdulrahman Saleh Mardawi (Abu Iba): Arrested in 1992 for error a man he suspected of collaborating with Israel and sentenced to life in prison.
  • Farah Ahmed Abdul Majid Hamad (Abu Ahmed): Allegedly involved in two terrorist attacks in 2003—a January shooting on Route 60 near the West Bank settlement of Ofra, which wounded two civilians, and a June shooting on the same road near Jerusalem, which killed American citizen Zvi Goldstein and wounded his family members.
  • Tawfiq Abu Naim: Headed Hamas’s Internal Security Force until this March, which entailed overseeing numerous al-Qassam Brigade members. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, he was an activist with the brigades prior to being arrested in 1989. He was released in 2011 as part of the Shalit prisoner exchange, and later survived an apparent assassination attempt in October 2017. Abu Naim is number nine on the Hamas electoral list.

Information provided in yesterday’s blog suggests that Abbas may cancel the elections if Arab East Jerusalemites are not allowed to cast their ballots within East Jerusalem. That issue may be moot. So may be the fear that many named terrorists may be elected. Many Palestinians still believe that, even with elections, the vote will only reinforce the sclerosis of the existing polity and dysfunctionality and corruption will be further entrenched.

As I listen to a number of Palestinian voices, many critics have placed their hopes in a revived and revitalized PLO that will reassert its primacy over the PA. But the PLO has no territorial base. It has no natural source of income. It is my conviction that such hopes are a chimera and the PA will easily remain the principal organ of legislative governance.

Further, unlike many Palestinians, I believe any evidence for overt external interference in the Palestinian elections is remote.  I believe that, in spite of recent reports to the contrary, that the election will almost certainly go ahead because of inertia alone. Even if dysfunctionality and corruption continue, elections have a very good chance of improving governance and allowing the PA to deal more effectively with the challenges it faces. One cannot and should not expect a huge improvement, but a degree of increased responsibility and accountability can be expected as democratic norms become more entrenched.

This is critical if the only realistic alternative to resolving the conflict is a two-state solution perhaps with the development of a concurrent confederation. A strong polity will be needed to forge a deal with all the compromises that any deal entails, particularly one with Israel where the power ratio is so dramatically asymmetric. Elections are not sufficient. Elections do not offer a magic cure. But neither are they a meaningless distraction. Ask any activist who participated in the transformation of an authoritarian state.

This is not 2006. The international community will not reject the election results but, instead, insist on rules that Hamas must abide by to participate in governance. Perhaps this relative optimism in a minor vein is helped because, in spite of all the enormous challenges, Palestinians have unequivocally demonstrated their enormous capabilities. I expect renewal, even if limited, and not further apathy and disengagement.

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