A hard road ahead

Mahmoud Abbas gestures behind the blurred profile of a Palestinian security officer

There are only hard choices for Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian political factions and the public generally.

Nasser Nasser Reuters

As Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, prepares to announce his plans for annexation, the Palestinian Authority is facing an existential crisis it is unlikely to survive, at least in its present form.

On 1 July, Israel is due to formalize plans to unilaterally and illegally extend its sovereignty over occupied territory.

Israel may decide not to annex the full 30 percent of occupied territory effectively offered to them under US President’s Donald Trump’s “peace” plan presented in January.

It may even decide to hold off completely, for now, present itself as a “responsible” actor and extract new contracts, funding, aid, or favorable loans from the international community as a price for its “restraint.”

That, after all, is how it runs its settlement racket. On occasion, Israel will offer temporary and partial settlement construction freezes in order to butter up any US administration that might otherwise think of using its aid as an instrument of mild persuasion.

It always seems to work.

No turning back

Israel’s government – a broad coalition forged in part around annexation – will most likely declare some kind of territorial expansion over some amount of land this week, even if pending US approval or as a statement of intent.

Netanyahu has gone too far to back down at this point and his deputy, Benny Gantz, seems to be fully on board too.

The Palestinian leadership has to respond. Palestinian diplomats complain the conversation has effectively shifted from ending occupation to preventing annexation.

But in truth, no one has talked about ending Israel’s half-century-old occupation for years. The peace process was moribund more than a decade ago, if not dead on arrival. Israel is now demanding that Palestinians “return” to negotiations, not on the basis of international law or the 1993 Oslo accords, but the White House plan that permits Israel to set its borders wherever it likes.

We take, the message seems to be, unless you give. Either way, the result is the same.

Assuming that the PA will stand by what it said when it rejected the US plan out of hand, there will be no such return. Repeated Palestinian calls for an international conference to hash out a two-state solution under the Oslo parameters and based on UN resolutions are also a non-starter. Palestinians have to come up with something else.

Israel, it is clear, will simply take. It does, after all, have the military machinery to do so.

But only hard choices lie ahead and it is not at all clear that those who run the Palestinian Authority have the necessary popular legitimacy to initiate any effective tactic, let alone an entirely new strategy.

The PA leadership has spent precious political capital clamping down on popular protests and dissent in defense of a peace process most people saw as moribund, rather than encouraging a sense of solidarity and unity among Palestinians.

And these have not just been protests against PA misrule. Security forces have been sent out against those demonstrating the 2012 visit of then-Israeli deputy prime minister Shaul Mofaz to Ramallah; those demonstrating in solidarity with Egyptian protestors during Tahrir Square uprising; those protesting against PA sanctions on Gaza.

Journalists, meanwhile, and others have been rounded up over infractions as petty as unfavorable Facebook posts.

The list is long and heavy-handed and Hamas in Gaza is culpable too.

With such a history, Palestinians are understandably skeptical about calls for the kind of popular display of dissatisfaction that the PA has otherwise been so vigilant in preventing.

Moreover, the authority’s division with Hamas and Gaza speaks to its own story of discord and disunity and mitigates against any comprehensive response.

Hard choices

The PA does seem, however, to have woken up from a long peace process-induced torpor. For once, threats to end security coordination with Israel have not proven entirely hollow.

Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, has previously announced such measures only to fail to follow through. This time he seems to mean it.

Abbas announced that the authority will no longer feel obligated by agreements struck as part of the Oslo accords and, as a consequence, has refused to take the tax monies Israel collects on its behalf.

The PA has ended all communications with the Israeli side, including coordination to seek passage for Palestinians in need of Israeli permission to access health treatment, prompting warnings from human rights groups of “medical chaos.”

And for once, the threat to end the much-loathed security cooperation with Israel appears to have been at least semi-serious. It’s not a total end, as one senior official, Hussein al-Sheikh, recently conceded to the US press: Palestinian security forces continue to act in accordance with previous policy, just not in coordination with the Israeli military.

These are measures that primarily affect Palestinians. Without tax revenue, public employees are unlikely to be paid. Without communication, Palestinian movement, controlled as it is, down to the inch by the Israeli military, is even more difficult.

They are measures that have already cost lives – as a byproduct of Israeli-imposed restrictions.

They are hard choices. They are, in fact, desperate choices.

They are also the only course of action open to a Palestinian leadership that is playing its last cards.

Back to the drawing board

There is no clear course forward for Palestinians, a lack of clarity reflected in attempts to tease out public sentiment.

A recent opinion poll shows that a significant majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want new leadership. But it is neither clear who they want nor what they want that leadership to do.

Abbas is consistently unpopular with some 60 percent of respondents. He would lose an election in a straight run-off with Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh. But imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would win if pitched against Haniyeh. And there’s no mention of Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, whose government has otherwise received plaudits for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More notably, there is no sense of what political program a new leadership should pursue. Only 45 percent of respondents support a two-state solution, and 63 percent believe it is no longer possible. But support for turning to a one-state solution in response to Israeli annexation stands at just 37 percent.

Meanwhile, a massive 81 percent believe the PA is corrupt. But exactly the same percentage of respondents said they were deeply concerned about public pay if tax monies collected by Israel are not transferred. At the same time, a large majority say they support the PA’s decision to stop receiving the money.

The biggest problem, perhaps, for Palestinian politicians and public alike is that in order to make a clean break with the last 30 years and in the hope of starting afresh, the PA must be disbanded.

The authority, however, has become so woven into the fabric of life in the occupied territories that such a break is not easy and will certainly be painful.

Israel learned its lessons from the first intifada. It redeployed soldiers to the fringes of Palestinian towns and cities. That way troops stay out of harm’s way and are able to control movement. It will be in no rush to put them back in.

The control over movement has also become the single most potent point of pressure for Israel. Palestinians have become beholden to the Israeli permit system for almost everything, from movement to imports to health care.

And that permit system is predicated on a Palestinian Authority acting as the mediator and middleman, the administrator of the occupation.

Take it away, however, and people will suffer. Patients will find it harder to receive specialist medical attention; it will be harder for everyone to move. What will happen to public order and public services, to schools and their curriculum, to universities and businesses and trade is almost impossible to tell.

During the first intifada, when the Israeli military shut schools and imposed curfews, much of education, social and health care was handled by volunteers.

But that took a sense of unity of purpose. Such unity hasn’t been apparent for a long time, in part due to the PA’s insistence on sticking to the tenets of a peace process the other side was ignoring and no one else believed in.

If PA officials are serious about not continuing to accept their role as an occupation “service provider” and going back to the “pre-1993 dynamic”, they will have to hope that choosing principle over expediency may just act as the unifying factor so long missing.

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.