The Palestinian Authority finds itself in a trap, caught between a rock and a hard place, in the sober-eyed view of Dr. Ali al-Jirbawi, a former PA minister and a political science lecturer at Bir Zeit University, in the West Bank. “Our fundamental mistake,” he says, “was to continue the negotiations with Israel after 1999, the year in which the final stage of the Oslo Accords was supposed to conclude and a Palestinian state was supposed to be established.” He goes on to bemoan, in a recent interview with the Palestinian website Arabs of 48, the fact that the PA did not make the continuation of negotiations conditional on a rigid timetable and on a freeze of all Israeli construction in the territories. The PA should also have opposed the geographical division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. Still, compared to the present situation, he said, at that time, “at least there was hope for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for the two-state solution.”
But now, with Israel blocking both the two-state solution and the single, binational state idea, the PA is left with zero options, Jirbawi continues: “It is impossible to dismantle the PA, and it is impossible to withdraw from the agreements [that were signed with Israel].”
For him, as for many Palestinian spokespersons, the idea of dismantling the PA has become a meaningless one, which if implemented, would mean doing away with the Palestinians’ greatest achievement in the Oslo Accords. From a former movement-based leadership based on factions and organizations, the PA confronted Israel and the international community at that time with a recognized, agreed-upon leadership which, despite the rift with Hamas, became an authorized government that achieved official representation for Palestinians worldwide, in the United Nations and its institutions. Moreover, that government, for residents of the Palestinian territories, is the supreme body that, despite all its failings, is empowered to manage their affairs.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas begins thinking aloud about the possibility of resigning and dropping the keys to the PA on Israel’s table, he is essentially threatening Israel with being charged with responsibility for managing the West Bank directly. That would mean having to handle Palestinians’ health, education and environmental problems, pay the salaries of the PA’s 150,000 employees in the West Bank and also ensure continuation of monetary transfers to the Gaza Strip, which are currently being made by the PA, albeit in a limited fashion. At the same time, however, Abbas also understands that dismantling the PA means firing tens of thousands of people, inflicting mortal economic damage on the West Bank and, mainly, losing the power of representation.
Meanwhile, all this is happening during a period in which most Arab countries, and especially those still able to wield some influence over political-diplomatic events – such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates or Egypt – are displaying indifference to the Palestinians’ plight, or making do with warnings, like the one made by Yousef Al Otaibah, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington, in an article published in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth last week.
For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah, the Arab leader who’s most concerned about Israel’s possible annexation of territories, and a fierce opponent of the Trump peace plan, has also warned Israel and the United States against such a move. However, at the moment, neither Israel nor the United States seems inclined to heed his warnings. Some maintain that the king’s declarations are aimed not only at Israel but also at the PA.
“King Abdullah’s outcry shows anger at Israel and reproof of the Palestinian leadership for not taking any practical steps to address the annexation plan … The Palestinians are not facing a test but a Nakba. It is not going to be only a Palestinian Nakba, and its consequences will not be confined to the soil of Palestine,” journalist Faiz Abu Shamala wrote in Rai al-Youm, an Arab-world digital news and opinion website.
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The outcome, he added, is liable to be damaging to Jordan, but instead of the king issuing a warning to Israel to the effect that it could find itself on a collision course with Jordan, Shamala observed, it is the Palestinians who should be saying that themselves.
“There is no need for the Jordanian people to be more Arab and more Palestinian than the Palestinian leadership,” he wrote. “Those who ate the fruits of the PA for decades should now fertilize the Palestinian ground with their profits and achievements.”
In the meantime, the PA is waging a two-pronged struggle: Against annexation and against the political benefits Hamas hopes to reap from it. A letter from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheith – demanding that he convene an Arab summit meeting urgently in order to discuss the possibility of annexation – drew ridicule and criticism from the PA and members of Fatah, who claimed that Haniyeh is not authorized to make any such request, as he does not represent an officially recognized body or a state. Abbas, for his part, made do with corresponding with three of the four members of the Quartet – Russia, the EU and the United Nations (but not the United States) – asking them to bring pressure to bear on Israel to derail the annexation scheme.
The PA’s freeze of any coordination with Israel, and Abbas’ announcement last month that he was breaking off security ties and considered himself no longer bound to upholding agreements with Jerusalem, have generated skeptical responses. The PA’s minister for civil affairs, Hussein al-Sheikh, told The New York Times earlier this month that “We don’t want chaos,” adding, “We are pragmatic. We don’t want things to reach a point of no return. Annexation means no return in the relationship with Israel.”
When Sheikh was asked what the Palestinians would do if they had information about an impending attack by a terrorist against Israel, he said, according to The Times, “That they would arrest him if he were still on the West Bank. But if the attacker were already inside Israel, he hinted that the Palestinians might warn Israel through an intermediary. ‘I will find a way to stop him,’ he said.”
But even this response drew, as expected, strong criticism, as it indicates not only that the security coordination continues to exist, albeit in a reduced form, but also that the PA does not intend to encourage an intifada.
The question mark hovering over the possible eruption of a third intifada is occupying the Israel Defense Forces and in particular Israel’s intelligence community. Recent media reports have mentioned the cautionary note sounded by field commanders and the army’s preparedness for a possible insurrection, as well as the security cost of such an eventuality, at the expense of Israel’s northern front. Senior IDF officers have also expressed reservations about the fact that the government is not revealing all its plans regarding annexation to the military, thus impeding its organizational efforts.
“At this stage we are not able to identify preparations being made in the field ahead of an intifada,” a senior IDF officer who deals with the Palestinian front tells Haaretz. “The PA is doing a great deal in the field of international diplomacy, it is cultivating its ties with Russia and France, it is supported by Germany, which is vehemently against annexation, but there is at this time no preparation in the PA for its own dismantlement or for managing an organized violent struggle.”
The problem is that the PA has no control over initiatives taken by Hamas, Islamic Jihad or private “entrepreneurs” who are liable to touch off violent confrontations that could morph into a broader revolt. According to Jordanian journalist Ziyad Fahim al-Atari, there is little likelihood of a third intifada because the Palestinian public is preoccupied with more immediate, existential matters and with maintaining such achievements as it has made – primarily of an economic nature. In addition, no one national strategy exists that could mobilize large numbers of people to take to the streets. And, finally, at present, widespread public activities could be curtailed by fear of the coronavirus.
Hamas espouses a different official position. Haniyeh’s deputy, Saleh al-Arouri, said on Monday in an interview with Hamas’ Al-Aqsa network, “We support all the political and diplomatic efforts being undertaken by the PA. But we rely on the movement of the masses turning into a popular revolution against the occupation everywhere, more than on political and diplomatic action.”
Apparently Arouri is alluding to an intention by Hamas to coordinate its activities with the PA and to create a “division of labor” – between diplomatic efforts and military mobilization. But that is not necessarily the way the leadership in Gaza sees things. Haniyeh said recently that “We are not taking a truly serious view of the meetings that took place [between Hamas and Fatah] in the past, so that every invitation to a meeting that is not serious and does not adopt a national strategy is not useful at this time.” These remarks were not aimed only at the Fatah movement’s leadership, they also reflect disagreement within Hamas.
The Palestinians’ confusion and helplessness are also seen in their ongoing conduct. The PA is currently mired in one of its most severe economic crises ever, following Abbas’ announcement that, as part of the rupture in the coordination with Israel, he would refuse to accept from it tax revenues accruing to the Palestinians. As a result, the PA did not pay salaries last month, and its employees are completely in the dark about when it or June’s salary may be paid.
On Wednesday, the Palestinian representative to the Arab League, Diab al-Louh, stated that the PA has not received a reply to its request to the League to approve a monthly loan of $100 million. The request was made when the Arab states that had committed to providing Palestine with a monthly security belt of $100 million reneged on that promise, with the result that the Palestinians’ budget deficit has soared to $1.4 billion, with no rescue in sight.
Anyone concerned about an annexation-generated intifada is invited to be even more concerned about a revolt sparked by economic difficulties of the sort that erupted in Lebanon and Iraq, or in the Gaza Strip before the Qatari ATM became available.
“The PA resembles a country that imposed sanctions on itself without examining their implications or creating an exit or rescue plan, and is now sitting on the window ledge and waiting for the world’s mercy,” says a Palestinian journalist who wishes to remain anonymous – “because with us, people who are critical of the PA get visits at night.”
The situation, says the same journalist, may look like a desperate state of affairs, one that could invite an intifada or some other form of popular activity aimed against annexation. But “too many Palestinians have learned to get along in the existing situation – they aren’t hungry yet,” the journalist says. “But even if someone wanted to initiate activity along those lines, who would lead it? The PA? An intifada of this kind should have erupted years ago – not against Israel, but against our corrupt officials. But now the annexation is forcing us to show solidarity with the PA. First nationalism and then cleaning out the stables.”