Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of several books, including Desiring Arabs and Islam and Liberalism.
“I’ve been describing the Palestinian Authority as a collaborating authority ever since its inception back in 1994,” Massad tells us. He explains that the PA was always intended to protect Israel and stop Palestinians from resisting occupation.
He explains the long history of Israeli and Zionist efforts and how they so often failed due to the chosen collaborators’ lack of popular support and national legitimacy among Palestinians.
But the PA has proven the ideal collaborator for Israel, since it has been able to draw on the legitimacy provided by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s history of revolutionary struggle.
The PA allowed Israel to “transform the PLO itself into an anti-PLO collaborationist leadership,” Massad explains.
Articles we discussed
- “Nizar Banat killing: Why the PA’s days are numbered,” Joseph Massad in Middle East Eye
- “How the Palestinian Authority manages dissent,” Abdaljawad Omar
- “Palestinian Authority forces are Israel’s foot soldiers,” Tamara Nassar
Tamara Nassar: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. My name is Tamara Nassar. I am subbing for my colleague Nora Barrows-Friedman. And this is Asa Winstanley. We are delighted to welcome our very special guest today: Joseph Massad. Professor Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York City. He is the author of several books, including: Desiring Arabs and Islam in Liberalism. He is also one of the leading Palestinian intellectuals of our time. Professor Massad. Thank you for joining us back on the show.
Joseph Massad: It’s a pleasure to be back. Thank you for having me.
Asa Winstanley: Thanks for joining us. We know you’re very busy. And it’s a real privilege for us to have you back on the show again.
Joseph Massad: Always a pleasure, always a pleasure Asa. Thank you.
Tamara Nassar: So the Palestinian Authority has been in the news since the horrific murder of a prominent Palestinian dissident in the custody of its security forces on June 24th, earlier this year. And the killing of Banat, and the PA’s subsequent attacks, arrests, beatings of demonstrators protesting his killing have exposed more than ever, the purpose of the PA’s existence, fundamentally as Israel’s collaborator. So today’s discussion will give a brief overview of what these past few months have revealed about the Palestinian Authority and its origins, but it will also – it will also give an overview of the position that the PA occupies today. So in a recent Middle East Eye piece in June, you described the Palestinian Authority as a collaborating body with the Israeli apartheid regime under US sponsorship. Could you please start by explaining how the PA acts for Israel and not for the Palestinians?
Joseph Massad: Well, I’ve been describing the Palestinian Authority as a collaborating authority ever since its inception back in 1994, when it took over power, after the PLO signed the Oslo agreement in September 1993, around 28 years, this week, 28 years ago. So I think you know that the PA was created precisely as a collaborating body through the Oslo mechanism. Remember, the Israelis have been always looking, always on the lookout searching for collaborating Palestinians, and they found a good number since the 1920s.
However, they were unable, and were unsuccessful in finding Palestinians with much national legitimacy to collaborate with them. Ever since the PLO was created in 1964. And subsequently, since 1969, when the guerrilla groups took over the PLO and began to represent the effort of Palestinians to resist and combat Israeli colonialism, the Israelis began to look very seriously for an alternative to the PLO. This became more pressing in the early 1970s, early to mid 1970s, as the PLO began to get international recognition in 1973. It received recognition from the non-aligned movement in 1974, it received it from both the League of Arab States as well as the United Nations. Therefore, the Israelis were most concerned about the ascending international legitimacy of the Palestinian cause as represented by the guerilla dominated PLO. They had, they went through a number of strategies, one of which was having mayoral elections in the West Bank and Gaza, initially successful in 1972.
They brought about mayors that were loyalists to the Hashemite regime in Jordan, which had been on very good terms with Israelis, with the Zionists since the 1920s. And therefore, tried to or hoped that they could, in fact, stand in for Palestinian interests rather than the PLO, especially as their political position would not have been inimical to that of Israel, but rather cooperative didn’t work. By 1976, the entire slate of mayors that were elected were elected on a PLO platform and the sort of the elections backfired on Israel, who had, at the time hoped to project a kind of image of a benign military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They tried again, whether was the failure of the mayoral and municipal elections they tried was something they called the Village Leagues in 1978, which also fell through in the early 80s.
Most of the participants at the Village League project were immediately identified as collaborators and traitors by the PLO, and were threatened if they were to participate in that body. So all these attempts had failed. And we can speak perhaps later on the history of earlier attempts to co-opt Palestinian leaders. The Israelis decided in the 1980s, they went back to the Jordan option, which had been given up by King Hussein in the middle of the 1970s. Not out of his own will, but as a result of the will of the League of Arab States, which chose at the time to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the defeat of the PLO and its exile, and certainly after it was fragmented in 1983, through a kind of a civil war between the different factions of the PLO, the Jordanians decided in the middle of the 1980s, to perhaps extend a rope to save it from drowning, by allowing it to hold a PNC meeting, in Amman when other countries of the Arab world had refused. But this was in preparation for some kind of final, what was called at the time pragmatic position that the PLO would adopt.
Things accelerated quickly: finally, the Jordan option was no longer available in 1987, with the Palestinian uprising, engulfing the occupied territories, the Jordanian regime decided to delink itself from the West Bank. And the Israelis, now were in a bind that the Jordanian regime which had historically spoken for the Palestinians, were now delinking.
The saving grace of this entire story was, of course, the Gulf War, and the penalties that accumulated against the PLO, as a result in terms of funding by Gulf governments which stopped. Iraq stopped funding because it was now under siege. And this was coupled with a major failure internationally in terms of its diplomatic stature with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. So the PLO was finally exactly where Israel had always hoped it would be: without funds without diplomatic backing. It could now bend in any possible way that the Israelis would want it to, and indeed it did.
So this is the time when, even though in ‘91, we’re not really sure, they still brought in the Jordanians to speak for the Palestinians at the Madrid conference. And then they brought in a Palestinian delegation under the rubric of the Jordanian delegation. But secretly, they were basically hammering out a deal to make sure the PLO surrendered completely on all the principles for which it had stood since the middle of the 1960s and certainly since 1969, which it obliged at Oslo. So the PLO, in that sense was transformed through the mechanism of Oslo from a liberation movement to a movement or an organization that would help enforce the occupation, with which the Israelis anyway, subcontracted Jewish settler-colonialism in the occupied territories.
This was very important, of course, for the Israelis a great achievement, because the PLO had huge amounts of legitimacy prior to 1993 as a representative of the Palestinians, and therefore rather than find a counter organization to the PLO, which they had tried to do, which always lacked that kind of legitimacy, they hoped – perhaps correctly, to a certain extent – that the legitimacy of the period of struggle that the PLO had acquired would sort of have a large momentum that would carry it through its collaborationist future in a way. And to a certain extent, that’s exactly sort of how things unfolded. But very, very quickly, of course, the PLO gave way to the Palestinian Authority, which Oslo insisted on it as a body to be created, and to be the future negotiator with Israel on whatever deal, they will broker, the PLO, as a representative of all Palestinians was relegated to the background.
The PA came to speak for the Palestinians of the occupied territories minus East Jerusalem – of course, not the diaspora, not the refugees, and certainly not Palestinians inside Israel. So in one stroke, not only did the PLO become a collaborating body, it ceased to – in doing so it contracted the Palestinian people by two thirds, meaning it gave up its representative capacity for all Palestinians and claimed now as Israel had been doing for decades, that the Palestinian people are only those who live in the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore they’re the only ones that Israel would be concerned with in terms of any possible deal in the future. And the budget and the money that used to go into the coffers of the PLO were now dry, and they were transferred to the PA.
So as a result definitionally the Palestinian Authority was created as a collaborationist body to help enforce the occupation. It was created through the Cairo agreement, or rather, its police force was created through the Cairo agreement. And the responsibilities for its police force was precisely to safeguard Jewish colonial settlers and the occupied territories and Gaza and the West Bank and to prevent all acts of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation, and most importantly, to demobilize Palestinian society, which had been highly mobilized since December 1987, after the eruption of the Palestinian revolt known as the first intifada. So it quickly moved to perform all these tasks with aplomb, I would say.
Asa Winstanley: You’ve talked a little bit there about earlier in what you were saying about the Village Leagues, the failure of the Village Leagues as a kind of precursor in a way to the Palestinian Authority as a collaborationist entity in the West Bank. Could you talk about earlier efforts by Israel and the Zionist movement before 1948 to recruit Palestinian collaborators?
Joseph Massad: Indeed, I think, you know, the effort was really an important one and it begins as soon as the British occupation of Palestine begins in December, or late November, early December 1917. By August 1918, much of mandate Palestine was under British occupation. The Zionist executive which was set up to represent the colonial settler Jewish population and Palestine, began to pay closer attention to the question of co-opting Palestinian leaders or Palestinians who the Zionists would make into leaders to speak for the Palestinians. One of the important responses that Palestinians had after the British occupation, and they continued their ongoing resistance to Jewish settler-colonialism that had begun in the 1880s was the creation of Muslim-Christian associations.
They had to do this because the British set up a sectarian system as soon as they came in. They insisted on Palestine being divided among its different religious sects, meaning Muslims, Christians, and Jews, there was a very tiny community of Jews who had been in Palestine since the 16th century. They numbered about 4,000 in the middle of the 19th century, there were probably about 10,000 at that time, but there was of course, a growing body of Jewish colonial settlers, who now seemed to have amalgamated – according to the British – in Palestinian society that they constituted a separate almost indigenous sect rather than a colonial settler sect. In that sense, what the British were doing in Palestine in the early ’20s is not unlike what the Americans tried to do in Iraq after the occupation of segmenting it along ethnic or religious lines. However, in the US –
Asa Winstanley: Sunni and Shia and so forth.
Joseph Massad: Sunni and Shia – it’s more complicated in Iraq because they did it religiously in terms of Sunni and Shia. And then they did the Kurdish versus Arab, although it was just like those Kurdish parties and the Arabs were divided into Sunni and Shiites. This way, the Iraqi people now became three different segments, in the name of American style, democracy, if you will. So, the British have done something very similar.
To counter that early on, Palestinian Muslims and Christians immediately set up Muslim-Christian associations, first of all, to gain legitimacy in the new sectarian system that the British had established, and at the same time to show unity of purpose and of political goals in fighting the Balfour Declaration, British occupation, as well as the facilitation of Jewish settler-colonialism, which the British occupation and mandate promised to sponsor and were indeed already sponsoring. So as a result, the Zionist executive was very concerned about the solidarity among Palestinian Christians and Muslims and began to work to undermine this show of communal solidarity among Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
So they began to sponsor and finance Muslim National Associations, and excluded Christians, with local collaborators. This would become a very, very important effort that would be, they would choose several Palestinians to collaborate with them on the Muslim National Associations. And one of them, of course, was a collaborator, a Palestinian mayor of Haifa, by the name of Hassan Shukri – who was already in office since 1914 by the Ottomans – and who in 1921 thanked the British in a letter for issuing the Balfour Declaration and continued to collaborate with them until his death in 1940.
There were several assassination attempts on him in the 1930s, that were unsuccessful, he died of natural causes in 1940, and remains a hero, a hero collaborator for Zionism and Israel who continue to celebrate them to this day. So there were others, of course, who were involved in this project: Chaim Kalvarisky, one of the most important Zionist colonial officials who was also in charge of the so-called Arab department in the Zionist executive that represented the colonial settler community in Palestine was the one in charge of co-opting Palestinians to put them on the payroll of the Zionist Executive, and to advance the agenda of Zionism, that Zionism was not a threat to the Palestinians at all, that they would improve Palestinian lives and that they should be viewed as friends and not as colonial conquerors, for example.
Indeed, someone like Hassan Shukri would later insist on adding Hebrew to official, bureaucratic paperwork at the Haifa municipality in the 1930s. Despite the fact that Arabic was always the official language and all the native population of Haifa spoke Arabic as their native language, regardless of if they were Jewish, even the small Jewish community who spoke Arabic versus the colonial settlers, of course, who did not. So that’s one aspect of this. They even set up with the help of a major Jerusalemite family, the Nashashibi family, or its leaders, who were in opposition to another Palestinian Jerusalem family that the British also appointed to high office.
They played both families against one another, but the Nashashibis would not only collaborate with the British, but especially with the Zionists, even in creating what was called “peasant parties,” or sometimes “farmer parties” that allegedly were organized by the Zionists against Palestinian landlords, although of course, it was Palestinian big landlords, who set them up as a front for Zionist interests. They were small, they did not have much following. It’s not unlike what you have in all other colonial situations where the colonizing power sets up bodies of collaborators and tries to infiltrate all resistance against the colonial project.
So that the Muslim National Associations were, of course meant to alienate Palestinian Christians, that Muslims were having their own associations. And slowly the British would only recognize a lot of these religious organizations separately, they would set up something called the Supreme Islamic Council for Palestinian Muslims. Palestinian Christians are divided into a number of denominations, the largest of which, of course, is the Eastern Orthodox. Palestinian Christians set up their own organizations that were in alliance with the Muslim organizations but now were separate because the British demanded that even municipal elections be divided along sectarian lines. So the kind of sectarianism that the British and the Zionists introduced into Palestine was the main venue through which they had hoped collaboration with the colonizers would be most effective.
To a certain extent, they did create some sectarian divisions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially as the British would allow a major evangelical Protestant world conference to take place in Jerusalem at that time, sponsored mostly by the British founded YMCA, but sponsored by its American branches at the time, in the hope of sort of making Jerusalem a center for evangelical Christianity. Most Palestinian Christians, especially the Orthodox, whose laity had been targeted by Protestant evangelicals, to be converted to the religion immediately opposed the conference as did other Muslims, but of course, there was all kinds of sectarian propaganda put forth, that the evangelicals might have been supported by Palestinian Christians, which of course they were not and indeed, all the major bodies, Palestinian representative bodies of Palestinian Muslims and Christians came together to condemn the conference and condemned the sectarian sort of campaign that ensued.
After the Palestinian revolt began, initially in 1935, with the guerrilla groups under Izz al-Din al-Qassam, and subsequently, when the strike began in 1936, with the revolt becoming increasingly widespread across the country and British repression becoming more and more draconian, the British and the Zionists were able to fund and train a number of Palestinian collaborators, some of whom had been actually part of the Palestinian revolt, but were co-opted by the British representative in Damascus at the time, sent back to Palestine to lead what was then called the Peace Bands, or what Palestinian nationalists would refer to as the Peace Gangs, who began to target the Palestinian revolutionaries and shoot them.
And they were, of course, on the payroll of the Zionists, and the British had helped train them. Ultimately, two of the major leaders of the Peace Bands, Fakhri Nashashibi and Fakhri Abdelhadi would be assassinated, and 1941 in 1943, by Palestinian loyalists for their collaboration. They did not of course command a large following, but they clearly were able to inflict some harm on the Palestinian revolution.
After 1948 Palestinians living inside Israel were subjected – those who were not expelled the remaining Palestinians who managed not to be expelled, inside Israel, also, their leaders would be co-opted, especially village mukhtars, or the village elders, or the kind of mayors through whom the Israeli tried to impose the apartheid policies, the pass laws that they imposed on Palestinian citizens of Israel from 1948 to 1966, which was extended actually to ‘67, before it was finally removed. All of that happened through the mukhtars and some other sort of collaborating Palestinians.
Which takes us to the occupied territories after 1967. Where, as I mentioned earlier, the municipal elections would be the sort of major venue of the early ’70s, moving to the Village Leagues in the late ’70s. So the Israelis, or the Zionists, had never tired of finding Palestinians who would collaborate with them. The problem with all these attempts, as I was saying earlier, is that few of these collaborators had ever had any legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the Palestinian people, and no national representative body ever collaborated at this sense. So the Israelis were unable to co-opt them until they co-opted the PLO and transformed it into the PA in the early 1990s.
Tamara Nassar: So those first years when the Palestinian Authority was founded out of a transition from the Palestine Liberation Organization: what did they look like on the ground? And can you think of other comparable examples in history of a liberation movement going over to the side of the oppressor?
Joseph Massad: At the beginning of the PA rule or Oslo, like I said earlier the Cairo agreement and subsequent to the Washington signing of it or ratification of it created the bodies of Palestinian security, sort of core that would be used to oppress the Palestinians. And to prevent any resistance to them. I’ve written several times on the earliest of incidents, when three Fatah militias shot this guy who refused to remove his car after he parked it at a place where they did not like it in Gaza, they shot him in the legs. A few weeks later, when Arafat arrived in Gaza, and there was demonstrations by students against Oslo, his police force killed between 13 or 14 Palestinian students, something for which he was commended by then-Vice President Al Gore, who was happy with Arafat setting up military tribunals for those who opposed Oslo which of course were depicted as terrorists or extremists who are anti-peace rather than anti-collaboration and anti-surrender.
So that security which were subsequently trained by the Americans, and funded by the Americans and the EU, over the years, initially began as, its mandate was its responsibility for internal security and for public order meaning to prevent Palestinian resistance and to also protect Jewish colonial settlers not in their settlements because they could not go there, but if they decide to go through Palestinian towns, whether shopping or to harass the indigenous Palestinians. So initially, there was about 9,000 policemen 7,000, of whom were brought in with the PLO from abroad from exile.
These were clearly Palestinian guerillas who were transformed through the mechanism of Oslo into mercenaries, right, this would be the birth certificate of the Palestinian security force. But with regards to the question of precedents in other places, I mean, I think there’s probably one prominent precedent which is UNITA, which was one of the liberation movements in Angola. It was one of two major liberation movements, there was the MPLA and UNITA.
UNITA had been funded, and supported by the Chinese from the middle of the 1960s or late ’60s up to 1975 or ‘76. Upon the liberation of Angola, UNITA switched sides rather than, from fighting the Portuguese for the liberation of Angola, as the MPLA took over the country after independence, UNITA began to receive funding and training by apartheid South Africa and the US to undermine the revolution and the new independent country of Angola, and in that sense began to, not only began, launched an actual war, and raids on Angola, with South Africa’s apartheid backing at the time, so of course, Angola was a settler colony as well, most of the Portuguese settler-colonists left after the end of Portuguese settler-colonialism. But there had always been interest in Angola by South Africa, who had already been in occupation of Namibia, which was another white colonial settlement bordering Angola.
So in that sense, perhaps not as egregious as what the PLO did. But remember, most national – a large number of liberation groups, who after, you know, after they won independence, in normal colonies, not in settler-colonies, would come to serve as allies of the former colonial power after they came to power. The Neo Destour of Tunisia, for example, which would become, of course, an ally of France. There are many, many examples. Tunisia also had been a French settler-colony, not as large as [Algeria], not as large as the Italian settler-colony of Libya, but nonetheless a settler colony. But you still saw this kind of collaboration by kind of a nationalist movement that was not committed, necessarily, to a revolutionary program, but rather to more of a garden variety titular national independence from formal colonialism, rather than any kind of economic independence, which they did not call for.
Asa Winstanley: To bring it up to the present day a little bit and how the Palestinian Authority is perceived in the West. And by that I don’t mean so much the Western governments but I actually mean even the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe and North America. So why do some people in the Palestine solidarity movement view the PA as quote-unquote the government of Palestine? I can give one example of this recently that happened in Britain, where there was a solidarity event called the Big Ride for Palestine, which was kind of a sponsored bike ride to raise funds. It was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
But at its final rally, it hosted the PA’s London ambassador Hussam Zomlot as its star speaker. So you know, and it’s just one of many examples: Hussam Zomlot often attends Palestine solidarity demonstrations in London and so forth, and his predecessor was the same. And he was welcomed by the PSC. So I mean, one comparison people often make of the PA in terms of the South Africa example would be the Bantustans, the sort of collaborationist entities under the South African apartheid regime. So there’s some similarities there with the PA. But you can’t imagine the Anti Apartheid Movement in the ’70s or ’80s, welcoming Bantustan leaders to London. So like, why do you think the true nature of the PA is not more widely understood in these areas? And why is it not viewed in a similar way to the Bantustan leaders?
Joseph Massad: I mean, several things rather, that the PLO, again, this was the reason why the Israelis thought the best thing to do instead of finding an anti-PLO, Palestinian collaborating leadership, why not transform the PLO itself into an anti-PLO collaborationist leadership? Because this way we could bank on its historic legitimacy. And indeed, remember the PLO in the ’60s and ’70s, and ’80s was seen as not unlike all these other liberation movements from settler-colonialism, whether it’s the ANC, whether it was SWAPO in Namibia, FRELIMO in Mozambique, the MPLA in Angola, etc. So it was seen as – or ZANU and ZAPU in Rhodesia – so there’s a great sort of reputation that these revolutionary groups had because of the struggle that they had engaged in to liberate their peoples from settler-colonialism.
This was part of the big reputation that the PLO had. Subsequently after Oslo, the liberal propaganda insisted that what the PLO had done was basically a peace deal with Israel, and where allegedly, we were told there was mutual recognition. Of course, there was no such thing at Oslo. At Oslo the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish settler colony on the land of the Palestinians, in return the Israelis only recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people that did not recognize the Palestinian people’s right to their homeland, or a state or anything of the sort. So it was not really mutual recognition. But US and European propaganda as well as Arab official regime propaganda, began to put forth this idea that the PLO had not really changed; it was the same PLO and not a different one.
People would begin to wake up to this perhaps after 2006 with Hamas elections that defeated Fatah, but by then, Islamophobia had been institutionalized much more so than ever before after 9/11. And therefore, the PLO or the PA maintained that it was still the legitimate Palestinian representative. The difference between the Bantustans and the ANC versus the PLO is that when the Bantustans existed, or when the Inkatha movement or people like Buthelezi were collaborating with apartheid South Africa, they were countered by the ANC by Oliver Tambo by Nelson Mandela’s reputation even when he was imprisoned, which is exactly what happened when the Village Leagues were put about, the PLO was there to counter the Village Leagues.
The PLO was there to counter the sort of pro-Hashemite mayors of the early ’70s, who had been elected in 1972. And therefore this anger undermined them, but by the time the PLO itself became the Inkatha sort of movement, if you will, or maybe to be more precise, when Arafat was transformed from Nelson Mandela into a Buthelezi, there was no counter to him. So as a result, it gave legitimacy to the Bantustan project. Imagine if Nelson Mandela was the one who would agree to have presided over something like the Bantustans.
So there was a lot of that, I think that went into people’s perceptions of what the PA was, there was a lot less room for the Palestinian opposition to Oslo to be broadcast in an international Western dominated media. Perhaps there was a lot more of that of the Arab media, but less so in international media. I remember, my first article against Oslo was in an academic journal, not in a journalistic mode, which I submitted, say in October of 1993, it came out in early ‘94, because it was a journal, it took more time to be published.
But it would have been very, very difficult for me to have found newspaper outlets where I could express these views and the sort of radical rejection of the premise of Oslo, which my article at the time had expressed. Similarly, when Edwards Said opposed Oslo, immediately after the deal, the only place that would publish his rejection was a kind of, you know, a liberal Zionist newspaper where he had published before, which is The Nation magazine in New York, but he was also publishing in the Arabic press at London, and the Egyptian and Al-Ahram Weekly, where he expressed also his views on these questions.
And, indeed, most of his articles that were critical of the Palestinians, if you want the long version, you should read them in Al-Ahram Weekly or in Al-Hayyat in Arabic, and a much more highly, perhaps censored and shortened version would come out in The Nation magazine at that time. And I’m not really sure how many of his articles they might have rejected and how many they accepted. But that was the only venue, as I recall, where he published his early criticisms.
Asa Winstanley: The Palestinian Versailles, he called it right?
Joseph Massad: The Palestinian Versailles yes. I actually was critical of that analogy in writing when I when I wrote, and I discussed this with Said at the time, because I thought, the Palestinian – that Versailles was imposed on a Germany that began the war, the Palestinians never began the war. So yes, the effect of the humiliation of Germany after the war through Versailles might have been similar to the humiliation of the Palestinians. But of course, a more apt analogy, I always thought was that the kinds of deals that were imposed on the ruler of Tunisia by France, in the 1880s to welcome French occupation to his country, you know, as a more appropriate example, or the pressure on Egypt, and the co-optation of the rulers of Egypt in the early 1880s, which facilitated the British invasion and occupation of Egypt, ultimately, while maintaining its rulers in titular power.
So I thought there were colonial precedents that could have been accessed that were perhaps more akin to what happened to the Palestinians than Versailles. Although of course, Said’s sentiment was correct in the sense that Versailles was an attempt to fully humiliate the Palestinians, right? Of course, The Nation liked that analogy of Versailles, they would repeat it several times and I thought, of course, they had an ulterior motive because usually what Versailles always meant was that the humiliation of Versailles is what gave ammunition to the Nazis’ rise. So the idea was hat The Nation editors were always concerned about the Palestinians becoming Nazi rather than about continued colonization by Zionist settler-colonialism of Palestinian land, so I was always not very positive about the use of the Versailles analogy.
Asa Winstanley: Interesting.
Tamara Nassar: So shifting gears a little bit, but why do you think the Palestinian Authority has been so enduring almost 30 years since its inception? The recent protests against the PA in the wake of the killing of Nizat Binat, and recent polls as well show that there is a profound rejection of the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza view the PA security thugs as spies, as collaborators.
But at the same time, the Palestinian Authority persists and its role in collaborating with Israel and its security, forces acting as Israel’s foot soldiers. And both the PA and its ruling party Fatah, provides some kind of, or have some kind of base amongst some Palestinians in the West Bank. When you compare this to the Village Leagues, there is some kind of persistence to the PA that would be interesting to examine. Why do you think it has endured so long?
Joseph Massad: As I just mentioned, the Village Leagues were countered by the presence of the PLO, that was created in the late ’70s, early ’80s, before the infringement of neoliberalism and the end of the Cold War. So the international context, the economic context within which it existed, did not allow for its continuation in an easy fashion. And the presence of the PLO, and its strong international legitimacy at the time was a major obstacle that could not be overcome.
The creation of the PA in the ’90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, with the US, being the sole superpower controlling the world, was a much easier transformation in terms of institutionalizing the interests of the PA. Remember, one of the important things that Oslo did was institutionalize the PA financially in the lives of the Palestinians. First of all, it demobilized the Palestinian revolution of the first intifada by co-opting many of its leaders into the PA political class of bureaucracy, of the security apparatus. And it co-opted all the technicians and the intellectuals into the mushrooming non-governmental organizations who had descended like the plague on the Palestinian territories offering relatively very, very high incomes, to activists.
Asa Winstanley: The NGO industrial complex.
Joseph Massad: Absolutely, there’s the NGO industrial complex. So as a result, you’ve created a population under occupation, who’s now fully dependent financially on income that comes to it from the peace process, the NGOs were created by the peace process, they were linked to it. The PA was created by the peace process, it was linked to it. The financial remuneration and financial aid that went into the PA coffers went into it, as long as there was a peace process that was unfolding and ongoing.
Therefore, now you’ve attached the majority of the Palestinian population, whose economic situation was dire at the end of six years, or five years of the first intifada, and the destruction of much of the Palestinian – especially agricultural – economy, but much of the economy in general. So this situation to rescue the Palestinians economically, through employment by the PA by the NGOs, would link I think the Palestinians structurally and economically to the PA and the peace process. As a result, anyone who wanted to oppose the PA, or to bring it down would lose their job and their livelihood. This way, you’ve linked the livelihoods of people to their oppression, with their national oppression, and to the possibility of the continuation of their colonization by Jewish settler-colonists.
One of the interesting things that Oslo had done, having come about after the 1980s, after the fall of the Soviet Union after the institutionalization and the expansion of neoliberalism is the creation of a number of classes. Oslo created a number of classes to help institutionalize the PA as a permanent fixture. So there was, what you had is basically a political elite that was created or brought from exile to staff the Palestinian Authority, but also, some of the political elites inside the West Bank and Gaza were also added to those who arrived from Tunisia.
A second group was the bureaucracy that was needed to administer the population for the PA composed mostly of local staff, but also of returnees that also used to staff the different PLO departments. A third segment was of course the security force, which was used to repress Palestinian resistance to Israel and to Oslo as it continues today, composed of former guerillas turned mercenaries for Israel, to be financed and trained by the Americans and the Europeans, employees of the non governmental organizations, which as I’ve mentioned, are most of the intellectual and technocratic class.
They’re all set up by the Americans and the Europeans, some by the Japanese. Most former activists and public intellectuals who participated in the first intifada would become part of the new NGO staffs. And then, of course, you have the Palestinian business class, the local and the diaspora class who returned from exile to profit off their people and off the Oslo process. And those sort of, the rich already in the West Bank and Gaza who had been already profiting under the occupation, before Oslo would become a very important segment, which, in fact, remember, Palestinian millionaires pushed Arafat to sign Oslo, you know, even if he had any doubts, which I’m not sure he did. But they pushed him to accept the deal, because of how much benefit they saw in it for Palestinian businesses.
So in this sense, as the Oslo accords were signed at the height of the hegemony of international neoliberal, the international neoliberal order, the purpose I think of facilitating profit-making for Palestinian businessmen. There was a number of programs to empower Palestinian women to become entrepreneurs, but they remain small, but also sort of the linking of the past to the intelligentsia, to the NGOs, all of that was able to ensure a relatively lean administrative staff inside the PA, and an expansive security apparatus to repress resistance.
Just to give you an example, a couple of years ago amidst the preparations for the Deal of the Century’s Bahrain conference which Jared Kushner had presided over on the orders of Trump, just as they were preparing for that, for this conference in Bahrain, the Israeli army Chief of General Staff, General Aviv Kochavi, had met with a prominent Palestinian millionaire in Ramallah to discuss the current economic situation in the West Bank.
So we’re speaking here about direct meetings between Palestinian businessmen, and Israeli military brass, not even the political brass, to discuss the economic situations and the profit-making operations that the Palestinian bourgeoisie has benefited and continues to benefit from. So in this sense, by the time Trump came, and insisted that perhaps the PA’s political class may no longer be necessary, all we need is the businessman and the policemen, which is, of course, the same structure for neoliberalism everywhere in the world, the idea of having a lean government, because you know, the businessmen will be able to run things, and those who oppose them will be shot by the police.
Hence, the militarization of the police force in the US and in Europe, and the carte blanche given to business elites to run the affairs of the economy, through a very friendly but lean, bureaucratic staff that opposes the idea of big government, as they call it in the US. I think all of this sort of accounts for the persistence of the PA in these times, especially because Palestinian, the Palestinian situation, and Jewish settler-colonialism has persisted beyond even the last sort of liberation struggle in Africa and Asia, which was, of course, a South African struggle that had made a compromise that was also detrimental to the economic rights of black South Africans in 1994. That deal that Mandela and the ANC concluded was one where they would trade off the granting of political rights to people of color, mostly Black people, but also Indians and coloreds, in South Africa in exchange for not getting any economic rights, right.
The idea is that, if they accepted political rights, but continue to allow economic white supremacy to prevail in South Africa, apartheid would end: that was the deal that they took. And as we know, of course today, poverty and the racial divisions in terms of income and property in South Africa are larger than they had been even under apartheid. Nonetheless, that was the deal that was accepted by the ANC. The Palestinians were not allowed even that kind of deal precisely at the time that the Bantusants were being destroyed and removed from the terrain of South Africa in 1994, they were being created for the Palestinians through the mechanism of Oslo, and the mechanism of the PLO or Arafat turned Buthelezi in the Palestinian case. But I think the international context was very important in rendering the PA, longevity, sort of as it has been.
Namely that the age of revolutionary struggles of the ’60s and ’70s, and even, you know, a few in the ’80s had ended, the bipolar world had ended, there was no longer an Eastern Bloc. And so these were the reasons why the PLO, in fact, ceased to be the PLO and became a collaborating authority. And as a result, its ability to continue in that role was enforced by the economic help that the EU and the US mostly provide to ensure Palestinian obedience and the end of Palestinian resistance.
Asa Winstanley: What would it take for the PA to be overthrown? And do you think it should be replaced before liberation, or just done away with?
Joseph Massad: I mean, it seems to me if there’s no money, the PA would not be able to survive. But we do know that money continues to go into the coffers, especially of the security apparatus. Now, the question is, would the PA political apparatus continue to function? Trump thought they were not necessary at this point. And of course, neither did Netanyahu. Biden seems to believe that perhaps they might need them for a bit longer. They need the security apparatus, for sure. But the political apparatus may prove counterproductive in that sense, except for a very, very small sort of staff, they would rather just keep the bureaucracy to run the everyday affairs of people mostly, you know, like a transportation system say, and the sewage system, water and electricity services, things of that sort.
But aside from this garbage collecting, besides that, they really don’t need a political staff of the size, whose corruption has been legendary in the last three decades, and therefore, you see this kind of weakness within the PA political leadership, which is contrasted with the amazing strength and hubris of the Palestinian security apparatus. For now, there has been no, I would say threat coming from the security apparatus against the political apparatus, even though the security apparatus understands very well that it is the favorite of the Israelis and the Americans. And the political apparatus understands very well that they are not, or no longer needed necessarily.
Palestinian, big business remains unclear on this new project, I think the big business, the Palestinian businessmen and billionaires and millionaires feel that they do need the political apparatus for now. Which is why I think it seems to continue to be maintained, although there have been some complaints recently about its performance. And indeed, it’s embarrassing repressive apparatus had become sort of, you know, headlines in the international press, and they would rather a lot of this repression happened sotto voce in a way sort of in a way that is not so clearly embarrassing to them. So I think funding is the major criteria. The funding ends, it would end, as you saw it was almost dead until it was rescued by Biden. I think had Trump continued to be in power, it would not have survived for much longer. And by “it” here I mean the political apparatus, not the security bodies that have been set up and trained by the Americans.
Tamara Nassar: I mean, you describe the embarrassing, repressive apparatus and how it was covered in Western media even following the protests in reaction to [Nizar] Banat’s, killing, and there was a sense that the PA’s response, in its crackdown on protesters, was hysterical. I mean, there was a really a mask-off moment, we understand the PA and the purpose for which it serves, but there was really this really hysterical response on protesters. You’ve sort of touched on this, but following the US defeat in Afghanistan, do you think that the Palestinian Authority has some kind of collapse anxiety that its puppet government – and, you know, not just its political apparatus, but the entire apparatus will collapse as well?
Joseph Massad: That anxiety has been there for some time, I think. I mean, we begin to see this clearly, with the failure of the PA to continue to pretend to be elected democratically in 2006. And with the end of all elections. Remember the last time Abbas was elected, or his mandated electoral mandate ended in 2009. So as a result, he’s been a sole dictator, sort of, without any kind of mandate ruling – ruling is a strong word – but presiding over this collaborationist authority since 2009. Now, when I say these things were embarrassing, of course, I think they’re embarrassing to the American government and American liberals and to European governments and the EU. They’re not embarrassing to the PA necessarily.
The PA repressive apparatus has been at it since Arafat arrived in Gaza in 1994. They have killed Palestinians, they have put them in jail. They have tried to control elections, they have attacked and tortured dissidents, they’ve attacked universities and students. They’ve tried to fix elections. They have collaborated with Israelis and handed over Palestinians to them. They’ve shot at Palestinians who resisted Israelis, and put them in jail. They gloat often and boast of having uncovered all kinds of resistance operations that they refer to as terrorists targeting the Israeli military occupation or the illegal colonial settlers. So none of this has caused them to feel scandalized or in any way embarrassed by these actions. The problem in the Binat assassination was, of course, that it embarrassed their sponsors, not the Israelis certainly who were absolutely fine with this and we did not hear much complaining from their side.
However, the Americans, I think were uncomfortable and disturbed and annoyed, and so were the Europeans which is quite odd, because of course, this is exactly why they funded and trained these security security officers to do, right? This is why they’re there: their raison d’etre is to repress any opposition to Oslo and to the PA and to the continued settler-colonization of the West Bank and Gaza.
So it is indeed odd now, that anxiety persists, like I said, especially when Trump came to power, they realized that in fact, their days were numbered, that their effectiveness, or their usefulness for the Israelis and for the Americans, was no longer paramount. Indeed, ever since Netanyahu stopped wanting to have any negotiations with the PA, they realized that they were no longer of any use to the Israelis, the Israelis got all that they could get from the PA everything that it had basically, it no longer had much to offer, and surrendered all its cards very, very early on, and they were done with it.
The Americans needed or think they needed – Trump clearly was much more reasonable in realizing that there was no need for this apparatus. You know, we know what this game is, you know, we want you know, the basically the Jewish settler-colonialism to continue. We don’t want the opposition to it. So we need police to repress them, but we also need businesses that support American capital to profit from this operation. Hence his deal was about having businessmen and policemen run the lives of Palestinians under the umbrella of the Israeli military occupation, and the rule, the arbitrary rule of Jewish colonial settlers. So yes, the anxiety continues, I think, because they realize that they’ve outgrown their usefulness and objectively they have very little more to offer, really, as a political apparatus.
Asa Winstanley: The escape last week of six Palestinian men from one of Israel’s most fortified prisons, has fuelled fears that those six men, if they were to cross into the occupied West Bank, they would need to face a second enemy after the Israeli occupation forces which is, of course, the PA police forces that you’ve described. Four of the escapees have been captured by the Israelis, but the remaining two could, I mean there’s been speculation in the Israeli press about where they’ve got to. And there’s a lot of disinformation going around, I suppose.
But some of them have said that at least one of them is suspected to have escaped to his hometown Jenin in the north of the West Bank. If in fact they do turn up in the West Bank, do you think that will create problems for the Palestinian Authority in terms of it, increasingly open rebellion in the West Bank against them?
Joseph Massad: It would, because of course, the PA security would arrest them and hand them over to the Israelis. And they might try to broker a deal wherein the Israelis should not reveal that the PA security had helped them in recapturing them, or that they would rather if they did capture them, and the Palestinian POWs, or perhaps more precisely hostages, realize that they were captured by the PA security officers, they might ask the Israelis to shoot them that before they speak to their lawyers, so that they would not reveal that they had been captured by them. Remember, we are dealing with thugs. I mean, these people were actually trained by an American general, as thugs.
I have in mind, of course, Keith Dayton, who trained them to be a thuggish security apparatus to be criminals. And, you know, collaborators are the enemy of their people, right? And their mission is described by Abbas as a sacred mission of coordinating their security efforts with the Israelis. So I think you’re right if they do capture them, and it is revealed that they had captured them. This would galvanize and mobilize more and more rebellions and revolutionary action against the PA which would lead to more and more repression, of course. So I think they will do their best to make sure the news doesn’t go out if they happen to capture them. Remember, I mean that there’s a bit of a, it’s not a symmetrical precedent, but the story of the PFLP leader Ahmed Sa’adat.
Asa Winstanley: I was just thinking of that, yea.
Joseph Massad: Who back in 2002, if you recall, the Israelis had accused of masterminding the assassination of an Israeli minister, the PA was embarrassed in not handing him over. They brokered the deal. I think the Jericho deal with the British and the Americans to try him and jailed him in PA jails. The PA jail of course, as the Palestinians, or the PA is treated like, you know, the racial inferiors and as children by the Americans and the Brits, UK and American observers monitored the PA prisons to make sure that Sa’adat remained in prison.
This situation remained in operation until 2006, after the elections of Hamas. Hamas had, of course, pledged to release Sa’adat once it came to power. However, before that happened, the UK and the US monitors of the jail, decided to leave the jail claiming the situation was no longer stable, allowing the Israelis to invade and abduct Sa’adat, from the PA jail: clearly he was handed over by their PA friends and taken to an Israeli jail, where he remains a hostage today, he was held in solitary confinement till 2012, tried and sentenced by an Israeli kangaroo court for 30 years in prison, and remains today, you know, a hostage and a POW in Israeli jails. But, you know, we’d never heard after the elections, and then after the American engineered coup overthrew Hamas in the West Bank, but not in Gaza, there has never been a request, or any real effort to bring Sa’adat back to serve his time in a PA prison.
So there’s been already collaboration, you know, with the Israelis, on handing over or allowing the Israelis to take possession of Palestinian hostages, who are even leaders of the Palestinian liberation movement, older leaders rather than some of the young prisoners that have now been in jail for some four decades and who had not necessarily been part of the PLO structure as such or high ranking in that sense. So yes, there’s been a precedent of the sort and I suspect that the PA security would be just as harsh as the Israeli army if they were to capture the Palestinian hostages that escaped.
Tamara Nassar: So, the Palestinian Authority has also been in the news lately, because 14 of its security numbers were charged in the killing of Nizar Binat. And this largely appears to be a scapegoat trial, it kind of reminded me of the Khashoggi – I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate analogy, but it reminded me of the Khashoggi scandal, because what seems to me is happening here is that this is an attempt by the PA to portray the killing of Binat as an isolated incident committed by a number of undisciplined members of its security forces, rather than kind of the PA’s MO.
So the trial was reportedly delayed on Tuesday after their defense lawyer refused to show up, or failed to show up. What do you think of this trial? And do you think it has any kind of greater significance than an attempt to whitewash the PA’s legitimacy after it was tarnished by this scandal?
Joseph Massad: It is precisely a whitewashing, but it’s a whitewashing that they’re pressured to do by the Americans and by the EU. It’s not even necessarily on their own initiative. EU funders and American Democrats want to pretend that they are supporting an authority that has some rule of law. And therefore, they need this show trial, as Trump tried to convince Saudi Arabia to have some form of trial and arrests for the alleged criminals who killed Khashoggi, to continue with your comparison. So I think, yes, it is a whitewash.
But it is a whitewash at the initiative of the EU and the Americans who need it, to be able to save face with the continuing funding and support that they give the PA, to continue to repress, and jail Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation, Jewish settler-colonialism, and the collaboration with both. So I’m not holding any high hopes for justice to be rendered and the case of Binat any time soon.
Asa Winstanley: Well, thank you very much again, for your time today Joseph, we really appreciate it. It’s been a really fascinating discussion, exploration of all these different issues. And hopefully, you know, our viewers and listeners will have benefited from it too. And we’ll have learned a lot more about the true nature of the Palestinian Authority. Thank you.
Joseph Massad: Thank you very much for hosting me.
Tamara Nassar: Thank you very much. And we’ll certainly link to your biweekly column. So readers can be directed to that. Thank you very much.
Joseph Massad: Great. Thanks so very much.
Video production by Tamara Nassar
Theme music by Sharif Zakout
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