Jonathan Lipow

The PA in Gaza: What could possibly go wrong

Want to know how bad it can get when genuine representative government is not fostered at the community level? Look at Kabul
Taliban fighters patrol Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan. Aug. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Taliban fighters patrol Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan. Aug. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Should the Palestinian Authority (PA) return to Gaza once the war between Israel and Hamas is over? The Americans seem to think so. Reflecting the zeitgeist in Washington, Richard Haas of the Council for Foreign Relations recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal (March 16) that “the Palestinian Authority…remains the best and potentially only security partner for Israel in both the West Bank and Gaza.”  

Sure buddy, whatever you say.

To be sure, various security organizations associated with the Authority do indeed share intelligence with Israel. Offsetting this, other organs of the PA actively promote terrorism through the “pay to slay” program and the hatred and racism taught in the Authority’s schools. And then there are the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and its offshoots. These groups aren’t directly associated with the PA, they are the de facto terror arm of Fatach, the organization that dominates the PLO and rules the PA. This keeps the PA’s own involvement in terrorism “off the books.” 

And it fools people like Richard Haas.

But the problems with the PA run far deeper than ambiguity regarding whether it is actually a promoter or opponent of terrorism. Only the emergence of a successful Palestinian polity will put an end to the cycle of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli response. And the PA’s dysfunctional institutions ensure that no such polity will emerge. 

Consider this description of the Authority, offered by Khalid Elgindy in Foreign Policy (Feb. 6, 2023):

“[T]he PA has been in steady decline for many years and is, in many ways, already in a state of slow-motion collapse. Even outside the question of security coordination, both Abbas and the PA are deeply unpopular among ordinary Palestinians, with some three-quarters of Palestinians saying they want Abbas to resign. Years of political and institutional stagnation, thanks in large part to the debilitating split with Hamas, along with the PA’s growing corruption and authoritarianism, have severely eroded its domestic legitimacy.”

But why is the PA such a failure? Because the PA is controlled by the PLO, which in turn is dominated by Fatach. Fatach is the progeny of the original Palestinian national leadership – the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) that was founded by Haj Amin El-Husseini, the British-mandate-appointed “Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.” 

More than any other individual, El-Husseini is responsible both for the intractable nature of the conflict between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, and the abysmal failure of the Palestinian side of that conflict to achieve anything.

The AHC was characterized by three qualities, intense corruption, an infatuation with Nazi ideology, and endless fratricide and infighting. Not surprisingly, these characteristics carried over into Fatach, the organization founded by El-Husseini’s distant relative and protege, Yasser Arafat. And since it was the PLO, dominated by Fatach, that created the PA, these characteristics define the PA as well.

Of course, the Americans know that the PA is a disaster and believe that if it is to return to Gaza, it needs to be “revitalized,” which essentially means not a rethink of its institutions but the replacement of its leaders with people acceptable to the allies. Supposedly, those fresh new faces will do such a good job that they will earn the trust of both the Israeli and Palestinian people, and it’s off to the races.

Taliban fighters display their flag on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan. March 19, 2022 (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

This will work about as well as it did in Afghanistan. As American Special Forces officers often point out, it took a few months, a handful of Green Berets, and a few hundred million dollars to liberate Afghanistan. It then took NATO twenty years, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and more than a trillion dollars to undo that victory and return Afghanistan to Taliban rule. 

How did that happen? 

The Special Forces liberated Afghanistan by working with local militias. NATO then proceeded to lose Afghanistan by trying to work with its central government, an institution that for a variety of reasons was intrinsically illegitimate. As for fresh new faces, Ashraf Ghani – the urbane professor who everyone in the West loved – was supposed to address the pathologies of Afghan governance so manifest when Hamid Karzai was in charge. But nothing changed, not because Ghani was the wrong man, but because the problem wasn’t Karzai in the first place. The problem was the institution that he led.

The same thing holds for the Palestinian Authority. While many of its leaders could be characterized as thieves, murderers, and even Nazi sympathizers, many others have been exemplary people of courage and conviction, for example, Salam Fayyad, who was the Prime Minister of the Authority between 2007 and 2013. Fayyad, of course, achieved nothing. Neither did his perfectly reasonable replacement, Rami Hamdallah. And it is beyond naïve to expect Mohammed Mustafa to fare any better.

Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in June 2011. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The Palestinian Authority doesn’t need fresh new faces. It needs to be replaced. The way to do it is to foster genuine representative government at the community level – and the place to start is Gaza.

The way forward is for Gaza to be redesignated as “Area C” (Israeli control) until institutions of self-rule can be stood up. At that point, the Strip would become “Area B” territory, with Israel responsible for security while Palestinians run their own affairs. 

Following that, similar initiatives should be launched in “Area C” regions of the West Bank, where 200,000 Palestinians live. Later, existing PA institutions in “Area B” regions should also be supplanted by local control. Only after this is done can serious initiatives to restructure the PA within “Area A” (full Palestinian control) be undertaken.

Now, what I just described – legitimate community-led governance in Gaza and the West Bank – is a necessary condition for actual peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is not sufficient. This effort, as the US and Israel’s Arab allies correctly insist, needs to be embedded in a process that will clearly lead to Palestinian independence. Absent that, Palestinians will refuse to participate in the process. And absent that, the whole effort is futile.

About the Author
Dr. Jonathan Lipow holds a PhD in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley. In 2014, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Global War on Terrorism. In all contributions on his blog, he is writing as a private citizen.