Two truths are lost in the agitated discussion about "the return or non-return of the civil administration" on the West Bank. Senior Palestinian Authority officials warn about Israel's covert plans to revive the administration's work, at the expense of PA institutions. Senior Israeli officials reiterate that Israel has no intention of reactivating the civil administration; in the same breath, they talk about the effective collapse of the PA. In so doing, they hint that there soon will be no choice but to revive the civil administration; despite our desire not to do so, they say, we will be compelled to reactivate it as "a humanitarian step."
The first truth that is being obscured here is that the civil administration, the Israeli government's operational arm in the occupied territories, was never dismantled. When the PA was established in 1994, Israel was relieved of responsibility for directly providing health and social services to the Palestinians. (Such services were fully funded by taxes collected from Palestinians. Contrary to legends about the enlightened occupier, the large surplus that remained in Israeli hands from these taxes was not allocated for infrastructure development in the territories, or for the development of social services; rather, the surplus filled up Israel's coffers.)
Israeli officials who served as "junior ministers" in health, education, agriculture, industry and other spheres turned over their ministries and powers to the PA, but they continued to serve in parallel offices as "liaison officers." The "civil administration" changed its name and became the "coordination and liaison office" - in the Gaza Strip. On the West Bank, where until the intifada Israel continued to control 60 percent of the territory, the two names, civil administration and coordination and liaison offices, are both used.
Since 1994, the civil administration on the West Bank has continued with same mixed tasks it has been carrying out since 1981. On the one hand, it supervises and limits Palestinian development, and confers licenses or permits - or, phrased more accurately, it throws up red tape to delay the conferral of permits for Palestinian private and public construction in C areas, and for the construction of roads and other items. On the other hand, it coordinates construction, expansion and development plans for the settlements, by means of planning and building committees that retain total command of land resources.
At first glance, as far as civilian matters in Area A (land fully controlled by the PA) are concerned, the coordination and liaison office's work is limited to the conferral of travel permits for Palestinians (VIPs, laborers, businessmen), whereas senior officials in the civil administration have been involved in protracted negotiations about water quotas, family reunification policies, and the return or non-return of 1967 refugees.
But this Israeli control over the movement of Palestinians should not be underestimated - the civil administration (or, to use its upscale name, the coordination and liaison office) has since 1994 remained a powerful body, and continues to influence, and intervene in, major aspects of Palestinian life.
Freedom of movement is essential to all development, to the growth of an individual and to that of a community. And to that of an economy, a culture and a society. This staple of life has been proffered, or not, by the civil administration/coordination and liaison offices, which act as policy implementers for Israel's governments. A large share of Palestinian frustration that accumulated before the intifada stemmed from the significant share of power which remained in the hands of this Israeli institution.
Thus, Palestinian spokesmen are misleading their constituencies when they warn about the "resumption of the civil administration." If the administration is felt more heavily today than before, this feeling results from the segregation of the West Bank into sealed-off Palestinian enclaves, and from the toughening up of Israeli control of Palestinian movement. The principle of Israeli control of Palestinian space and time via the imposition of limitations on movement was in effect before the intifada erupted. The change since then is quantitative, not qualitative.
The second forgotten truth is that the PA, as the supplier of civil services to the Palestinians, rather than as a political leadership, continues to function. It does so to an extent which surprises, when one takes into account current circumstances of continuing economic paralysis, and the clamp on normal activity caused by IDF activity and closures, as well as the loss of income (unemployment stands at 50 percent, and hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian taxes have not been transferred to their lawful recipient, the Palestinian treasury, and are instead being held by Israel).
Education and health ministries and their officials, along with local town and regional council officials, and workers from water and electricity companies continue to do considerable work, frequently with guns pointing at them, and with shots being fired from machine guns mounted on Israeli tanks. They go about their tasks in order to preserve a civil sphere, and provide a plausible, consistent flow of services. True, this does not happen everywhere.
True, the disease of discriminatory, unfair distribution of revenue and resources which afflicts the PA (and other regimes, democratic or not) has done more damage and been felt more strongly during the current crisis. But no Israeli knight, wearing a uniform and riding in a white Civil Administration jeep, will teach the "natives" how to forestall total social collapse. Whoever in Israel believes that the "civil administration" can provide a solution to prevent such a downfall is mistaken. That is because the "civil administration" that was not dismantled is part of the problem; it is symptomatic of Israel's determination, during the Oslo years as well, to control the Palestinian territories and their residents.
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