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The Palestinian Authority: Unsettling status quo scenarios (Part I)

Oct. 6, 2016 6:07 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 9, 2016 9:36 P.M.)
A Palestinian security officer looks out of a gate at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, June 7, 2015. (AFP/Said Khatib, File)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

Is one state the only alternative to an unrealized two-state solution? Al-Shabaka Policy Member Asem Khalil discusses the minimal changes in governance the PA has made post-Oslo and forecasts a “status quo ,” an institutionalized system of apartheid and a no-state solution. He also foresees three states – but argues none of this would be sustainable over time.

Conventional thinking assigns the Palestinian Authority (PA) an indispensable governing role in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The PA is also often described as a national achievement, having enabled Palestinians to govern, for the first time, a Palestinian population over a Palestinian land. The PA also supplies hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with employment through the public sector. It is the international community’s preferred interlocutor -- as opposed to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). For Israel, the PA enables the maintenance of public order in the West Bank’s major cities.

While the PA still appears to be at the center of Palestinian politics, internally as well as externally, it has brought few real changes to the way the West Bank is governed after 22 years of existence. In fact, the PA’s governance function is virtually irrelevant. This weakness will play out on the political status quo in ways that both policymakers and human rights advocates would do well to understand.

What changed in governance post-Oslo (and what didn’t)

The PA was established in 1994 as a result of the Oslo Accords. It was supposed to operate for a maximum of five years, with final negotiations ostensibly succeeding by then. The Oslo Accords’ framework of governance has remained largely intact as peace negotiations have failed time and again. This has allowed Israel to remain an occupying force exercising sovereign powers over the OPT, while the PA has become the main provider of public services for the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Under the PA, municipalities and committees for refugee camps have continued to function as they did prior to the PA’s establishment, and many have a longstanding history: Ramallah, for example, recently commemorated its municipality’s centennial. Of course, the PA has introduced some new legislation that affects local governance, including the election of members of municipality councils and the establishment of a ministry for local governance. However, the structure of municipalities, the collection of revenue, and the governance of civil servants in municipalities have retained their pre-PA characteristics, keeping their dependence on central PA institutions minimal. Moreover, there has been no local government structure coordinating between municipalities and the central authority, and there have been no calls for change.

The religious institutions of the West Bank’s various communities mainly govern family and personal status laws. Different Christian sects use different personal status codes, and ecclesiastic courts govern these personal status issues without any jurisdiction of civil courts. Shari‘a courts for Muslims are organized in a similar way in the West Bank. The establishment of the PA therefore did not introduce new laws or change existing ones in this domain, and it did not alter the religious and ecclesiastic courts’ structure and jurisdiction. As far as civil and criminal cases, Palestinian courts still govern these in the West Bank based on the Ottoman Majallah and on Jordanian criminal law.

Further, the PA has retained the use of military courts as adopted by the PLO. The retention of these courts means that military laws are still applicable to Palestinian subjects, and through state security, to civilians as well. At the same time, Israeli military courts regulate Israel’s rule of its controlled areas of the West Bank (such as military zones, natural reserve areas, and Area C). Both Palestinian and Israeli military courts existed before the creation of the PA and have functioned as usual during the PA era.

Though the PA introduced new laws that were meant to unify the judicial systems of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in practice the systems have maintained substantial differences -- with the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 intensifying those differences. The PA tried legal unification through central legislation. Although the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) adopted most of these laws after the first elections of 1996, it has been unable to convene since Hamas’ coup in Gaza in 2007. Since then, legislation has only been effected by the PA president through decrees, and only in the West Bank. The PA president’s direct control over executive offices has fostered a lack of accountability, especially because the president also chairs the PLO Executive Committee.

After 2007, Hamas started to issue its own legislation for the Gaza Strip and ruled through the caretaker government headed by Ismail Haniyeh. The National Consensus Government agreed in June 2014 consisted of 17 technocrats under the presidency of Rami Hamdallah. Its period of work was supposed to consist of no more than six months, and its main task was to prepare for the legislative and presidential elections. However, the plan has not been realized, and this government is still in place. It has been able to visit Gaza only once, without having, in reality, the ability to govern it. Accordingly, legislative activity in the OPT carries on without a centralized legislative body.

The current PA government mainly deals with internal matters, while the president and his entourage -- without public consultation -- take part in negotiations with Israel and handle the relationship with the international community although this is a PLO role. Indeed, the PLO Executive Committee often does not approve steps adopted by the president, such as the resumption of talks with Israel without a freeze on settlement activities.

All these examples illustrate a fundamental point: There is no real cohesive or smoothly functioning Palestinian body politic in the OPT. The political space has remained fragmented, without unified executive authority within the PA nor a defined system of government. The PA continues to depend on individuals holding certain offices, specifically their ties with the international donor community that supports the so-called peace process, and retains security cooperation and coordination with Israel.

Yet there is one area in which the PA has real influence: The security apparatus. This sector has played a central role in the post-2007 PA structure, and much of the foreign aid from the US and particularly the EU goes to the training of security forces. Most of the PA’s budget is dedicated to the security forces as well as salaries of civilian PA officials; this has created a huge network of civil servants and security forces that help keep the PA alive and allow it to maintain a minimum degree of control over the population. The security apparatus is therefore necessary for the PA, and the PA is necessary for the security apparatus it created.

However, the security and civil administrations of the PA are not unified. Internal systems are disconnected, and information is rarely circulated among departments. In addition, the security forces have a fragmented leadership, and report principally to the PA president rather than the PA Minister of Interior or even the Council of Ministers. Reforms since 2003 have contributed to a sense of increased order in PA cities, but not as a result of internal reorganization. Rather, coordination with Israeli authorities, particularly on capacity building programs for security forces, has meant that Israel -- until the recent stabbings and related individual attacks carried out mainly by young Palestinians -- has since 2007 rarely suffered from any serious violence. This resulted, until recently, in the easing of some checkpoints and an increased number of permits for Palestinians to enter occupied East Jerusalem and Israel (but not Gaza).

The inflation in public employment through the PA has created a deep dependence, in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on the maintenance of the PA, despite such problems as discrepancies in the distribution of salaries and an inefficient use of human resources. This, coupled with the PA’s other financial policies that have increased Palestinians’ economic dependence on it, makes it possible that the disappearance of the PA would result in an economic and financial crisis.

The PA in the West Bank has helped accelerate an economic boom in certain sectors, particularly construction, which has resulted in higher land and housing prices. Ramallah, the political center of the PA, has been fashioned into a space for the wealthy, whether those who are former owners of land, contractors, or large companies, or those who are benefiting from deals resulting from the Oslo Accords. These deals have helped to create monopolies among PA high ranking officials, especially in relation to imported basic products. As such, a new economic elite overlaps with and shares interests with the current political leadership. These developments also mean that what looks like an improved economic situation is in fact one in which the gap between rich and poor is widening. Further, most of the growth depends on loans, and prices do not reflect real value.

Originally published in full on Al-Shabaka's website on Oct. 5, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.

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