While public attention was focused this week on tensions in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank the Palestinian Authority entangled itself in a trap it’s having a hard time getting out of. The PA has a critical problem of legitimacy with the public in the West Bank, which was further aggravated in Operation Guardian of the Walls.
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The veteran leadership is perceived as inefficient, corrupt, an oppressor of internal opposition (in the wake of the death in PA custody of Nizar Banat, a critic of the regime) and as being too close to Israel. For all these reasons, and in light of what is seen in the territories as a Hamas achievement in the Gaza fighting, the PA is lagging behind in the competition with Hamas.
The absence of legitimacy has brought about a situation in which the Palestinian security units are inactive to the point of paralysis. But because terrorist cells in the West Bank are continuing to plan attacks, the IDF and Shin Bet are being sucked into the vacuum and are stepping up their activity in Area A (under Palestinian administration in the Camp David accords).
Israeli arrest operations deep in the territory, particularly in the refugee camps in the northern West Bank, are encountering growing resistance from armed Palestinians. And when Palestinians are killed, as has happened twice in Jenin, the PA is subjected to more internal criticism, for not protecting its citizens’ security. The result? More insularity and refusal to expand the security coordination with Israel.
That coordination, it should be recalled, was halted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2020 because of the Trump administration’s “deal of the century.” And even when it was restored, following Joe Biden’s victory last November, it was very piecemeal, because of the challenge posed by Hamas.
The Gaza operation presented another obstacle to a significant renewal of the ties, and in the meantime the case of the Evyatar settler outpost arose. The Bennett government evacuated the residents of the outpost south of Nablus in July, but hundreds of Palestinians continue to demonstrate at the site every week and to clash with the army force that is guarding the structures there. Another local PA-Hamas competition is developing here, over who will spearhead the popular resistance against Israel. The Palestinians have imported the idea of the “night harassment units” from Gaza, and are organizing demonstrations around the outpost after dark.
Against the background of this tension, a first meeting in years took place in Ramallah on Sunday night between Abbas and a senior Israeli figure, Defense Minister Benny Gantz. After the meeting, Bennett quickly issued a somewhat peculiar statement, under the cover name of “an official close to the prime minister,” in which he reassured his critics on the right that “there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians and neither will there be one.” In practice, the Gantz-Abbas meeting took place with his knowledge and his approval.
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The solution that was devised is convenient for all the sides in the government of opposites, which is surviving with difficulty as it is. Gantz can seize possession of the ties with the Palestinians; Bennett can assure his voters that those ties will not, heaven forbid, develop into peace talks; and Abbas, too, who at his age is not tending to embark on far-reaching moves anyway, will prefer to focus on receiving additional economic relief.
The trouble is that relief isn’t enough. With governance of the PA in the West Bank growing weaker, and Hamas outdoing the PA in public opinion surveys, more violent incidents are sure to follow. The West Bank provides a convenient playing field for all the Palestinian factions, and the number of terrorist attacks is already starting to rise. The breached border with Jordan and the penetrable fence along the Green Line are enabling the infiltration of more weapons. In the absence of an improvement in the security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and Israel, terrorism can be expected to increase. The fact that all this is happening on the watch of an 85-year-old leader whose zenith is behind him, is not contributing to stability.