In early July, a week after Israeli forces invaded the Jenin refugee camp, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas visited the camp for the first time since 2005. Abbas arrived from Ramallah in a Jordanian helicopter, accompanied by a massive, thousand-man armed guard. In his hour-long visit, he delivered a speech at the edge of the camp and laid a wreath at a cemetery where Palestinian militants killed by Israeli forces during the incursion were buried. To venture any further might have risked unwanted confrontations.
Abbas’s trip was an effort to make the PA appear in control over the restive refugee camp and adjacent city, but the visit—which PA forces coordinated with the militant groups that dominate and effectively govern Jenin—illustrated the opposite. Abbas appeared fragile, anemic, and not long for this world, much like the PA itself, which is polling at record lows among Palestinians. In the absence of any resumption of peace talks, Palestinians increasingly see the PA—which has long carried out the dirty work of policing and counterinsurgency to quell opposition to Israel in the West Bank—as a mere tool of the occupation. In recent weeks, crowds have jeered PA officials visiting the camp and even pushed them out of funerals for Palestinian militants killed in Israeli military operations. “Even before the last incursion, the PA was in a state of slow-motion collapse,” explained Khaled Elgindy, the Middle East Institute’s Director of the Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs.
In an effort to counter the PA’s decline, its security forces are attempting to reassert control over parts of Jenin and Nablus in the aftermath of Israel’s recent incursions. But the process may further compromise the PA’s legitimacy. Not only did the Israeli army operation, which was coordinated with the PA to prevent a clash between Israeli and PA forces, reveal the PA’s inability and unwillingness to defend its own people—now, to show that it is still in control, the PA will need to crack down on the young militants who have taken up the banner of armed resistance to Israel’s occupation, doubly undermining it in the eyes of Palestinians. “It looks like the PA is returning to Jenin on the back of Israeli tanks,” Elgindy said. “That’s not going to do anything to help their already extremely low credibility.”
For some early critics, such as the Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said, the PA’s double-bind was inherent in its creation as part of the Oslo peace process. Said presciently charged that by signing the agreement, Yasser Arafat—leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, out of which the PA emerged—ended armed resistance and recognized Israel without ending the occupation, which made Oslo a document of “Palestinian capitulation” and the PA the bitter fruit of defeat. Viewed this way, there has been an inverse relationship between the PA’s popular legitimacy and the extent of its conformity to the Oslo framework since its inception.
For many others, the PA’s built-in contradictions came painfully to the fore in the late 2000s, when it redoubled its “state-building” measures. After Israel destroyed the previous Palestinian security infrastructure during the Second Intifada, the PA—under direct US supervision and training—rebuilt and professionalized its Palestine Authority Security Forces (PASF), which swelled into a massive, repressive security apparatus that today employs more than 80,000 people. In her book Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine, political scientist Dana El Kurd observes that the PA spends a full third of its budget on the PASF. “There is one security/police officer for every forty-eight Palestinians, whereas there is one officer for every 384 Americans,” El Kurd writes. “As another shocking point of comparison, East Germany, considered the quintessential police state, had only one officer or employed informant per sixty-six Germans.”
The restructured PASF soon began cracking down on Islamist and other non-PA militant groups and quashing internal dissent under the rubric of its revamped security coordination with Israeli authorities. According to a recent article by Alaa Tartir, an academic and program director of the Palestinian think-tank Al Shakaba, the PA “sought to tame resistance to Israel’s occupation and colonial domination by criminalizing militancy.” “The PA and its security forces used harassment, marginalization, arrest, detention, and torture against those engaged in resisting Israel,” Tartir writes, pointing to how PA forces conducted “aggressive security campaigns within the occupied West Bank’s most militant spaces” in order to dismantle armed resistance and Palestinian dissident groups. The PA took these steps to demonstrate its capacity for future statehood to Israel and its international donors, and to reassert its aspirational monopoly on the use of violence among Palestinians within the West Bank. The practical effect, however, was to turn the PA into an oppressive regime detested by its own people.