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By Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh

Is real reform of the Palestinian authority possible? Or is reform simply a matter of “dancing to the Occupation’s tune?”   Also, can the types of reform be divided and classified in such a way so that some administrative, economic, educational, and social reforms are achieved, with the understanding that political and security reforms are much more difficult – if not impossible? Or will reform solely improve the image of the occupation and prolong its existence, which in itself is considered a deviation from the prime objective that Palestinian Authority was established to achieve – namely ending the occupation and not merely improving the status quo under its reign?!   

The Problem of the Palestinian Authority and Reform

The problem of the Palestinian Authority stems from the fact that it was established based on the tenets of the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which the Authority not only forfeited its right to the 1948 Occupied Territories but also made some fundamental mistakes.  The most apparent of these mistakes are:   

• Finding solutions to the core Palestinian issues such as the refugees’ right of return, Jerusalem, the expansion of settlements, Palestinian sovereignty over their own land, and finalizing the borders of the Palestinian state was postponed.
• No binding mechanism or ultimatum was established to force Israel to withdraw from the 1967 Occupied Territories or to resolve any of the core Palestinian issues.
• The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) (and the Palestinian Authority) suspended the Palestinian people’s right to resist the Occupation, renounced “terrorism,” and bound itself to resolves its issues with Israel through peaceful means alone.
• Many other political, economic, and security agreements and measures, which strengthened Israel’s hegemony, were later established upon the tenets of the Oslo Accords.  Furthermore, none of these later agreements provided any real basis towards independence or laid the groundwork for creating a safe and stable environment, in which the Authority could develop itself and its organizations in an effort to establish the Palestinian state.
• At the same time, the “dirty work” relating to crushing any Palestinian armed resistance, as well as tax collection and municipal and social welfare were thrown upon the Authority.  Moreover, Israel could penalize the Authority for any apparent negligence in fulfilling these commitments.

In short, the way in which the Palestinian Authority was established looked more like a “trap” than a solution or a way out; and the route it took was more akin to wandering aimlessly in a “labyrinth” than walking naturally and logically towards independence.  It should not be strange why an outstanding intellectual and writer such as Edward Said described the Oslo Accords by saying that Abu ‘Ammar has “lured his people into a trap that has no escape.”

Consequently, the problem lies in the “rules of the game,” whose ins-and-outs are completely controlled by the Israeli side.  The Palestinian side, however, must manage their daily lives, economic affairs, imports and exports, and external relationships through the narrow window that Israel provides.  The current situation is close in resemblance to a group of prisoners who have been assigned a warden to manage their daily affairs, and this warden can make their lives even more miserable if they do not comply with his rules.

The Aggravation of the Problem and the Need for Reform

The PLO considered that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority could be its chance to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 Occupied Territories.  This idea seemed reasonable to the PLO as it understood that the permanent status issues would be resolved within the next 5 years, during which the PLO could establish the infrastructure of the new Palestinian state.  However, the events unfolded in a manner that ruined PLO’s dream and greatly stagnated any real sustainable reform.  Below are the most noticeable facts:

1. It is Israel (not the PLO) that has hastened to impose its own state of affairs on the ground and expand its Judaization plans and the construction of settlements; it is this strategy which has made the negotiation process endless.  For example, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has multiplied from 180,000 settlers in 1993 to 540,000 settlers at the onset of 2010.  Moreover, rapid and wide-range operations to Judaize Jerusalem and efface its Arab semblance have taken place and are still underway.  At the same time, the Israeli Separation Wall has been built at the expense of expropriating Palestinian land and tearing the Palestinian social fabric and demographic apart, etc.

2. Fatah, which led the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, and the peace settlement efforts with Israel, found itself alone facing wide-spread opposition from nearly 10 Palestinian factions – the most noticeable being Hamas.  Fatah had established the Authority before any real efforts to “put the Palestinian house in order” were exercised.  As a result, the institutions of the Authority were mainly staffed by members of Fatah and its supporters – not to mention shameless opportunists and exploiters.

Patronage, purchasing loyalties, administrative and financial corruption, and the emergence of a class of new bureaucrats, old revolutionaries, and V.I.P.s – who took advantage of the new state of affairs to serve their vested interests – have all malignantly spread throughout the ministries and institutions of the Authority.  At the same time, political, security, and administrative measures have been put in place to exclude competent labor and manpower subservient to dissident Palestinian factions (especially the Islamists) no matter how qualified they are.   

3. There was a large inflation and “malignant swelling” of the Palestinian security corps: for apart from the fact that the majority of its commanders and recruits were subservient to a single Palestinian faction, namely Fatah, massive numbers of security forces were also recruited so much so that its proportion in comparison to the local population is the highest in the world (there is 1 police officer for every 84 Palestinians as opposed to 1 police officer for every 3200 individuals in London, for example).  The bigger problem, however, was the role that these security forces had to play—willingly or unwillingly—in crushing the Palestinian armed resistance and hunting down dissenting elements in compliance with the Oslo Accords.    

4. The economy in areas under the Palestinian Authority has suffered from major structural problems, primarily due the continuance of the Occupation and its ability to: enforce blockades and closures; destroy infrastructure; expropriate land; exterminate crops; establish stationary and mobile checkpoints; obstruct the import and export of goods; deprive factories of raw materials, prevent them from marketing their own goods, and even destroy them if Israel deems it appropriate—not to mention the fact that the Occupation controls all movement of funds, labor, and human resources, etc.

As for the Authority’s budget, an average of 50-55% comes from donor countries – the European Union and the United States being the greatest contributors.  On the other hand, the peace agreements have given Israel the exclusive right to collect Palestinian customs duties and deliver them to the Authority only after performing what is known as “revenue clearance.” The latter revenue source forms 30-35% of the Authority’s budget.  In other words, 80% of the Authority’s budget is at the mercy of the political temperament of Israel and the West, who demand strict political and security concessions from anyone who wishes to manage the Authority.

Israel has been able to tie the Palestinian economy with its own as 85% of the Authority’s exports go to Israel, while 70% of its imports are from Israel.  On the other hand, the Authority itself has suffered from widespread corruption in its ministries and institutions, and a “consumerist” relationship based on patronage and favoritism has been established between the Authority and its citizens.  Much has been written about this, but it should suffice to direct the reader to the May 1997 report issued by the Palestinian Legislative Council’s (PLC) Monitoring committee’s (at that time led by Fatah), which stated that the financial corruption within the Authority led to the loss of more than 326 million dollars (out of a total budget of about 1500 million dollars). Upon the issuance of this report, the PLC gave Arafat’s government a vote of non-confidence (56 votes to 1).

When the issue of reforming the Palestinian Authority was raised in 2003 and granted Israeli and American support, reform efforts focused on reducing the authority of President Arafat due to his support of the Intifadah, creating the position of prime minister, as well as reforming the security forces so that they are better able to fulfill the security commitments of the peace settlement and crack down on resistive elements.  As for economic reform, it aimed at improving economic performance and providing a reasonable level of services after corruption and laxness had exceeded all bounds.  However, none of the major structural problems related to the occupation have been solved.

Salam Fayyad’s Government and Reform

Salam Fayyad has had the greatest opportunity to realize his vision for reform ever since he became Prime Minister of the Palestinian government in Ramallah in mid-June 2007 until now.  He built his vision on a strict implementation of the “Road Map” and the concessions of the peace settlement, starting with the security commitments, in an effort to attain cooperation from Israel, which will pave the way towards establishing a Palestinian state.  In August of 2009, Fayyad revealed his government’s 2-year plan to establish the institutions of the independent Palestinian state. This plan included pioneering projects such as building an airport and a railway; securing energy and water resources; improving housing, education, and agriculture; encouraging investments; and enhancing the performance of the security forces. 

Also, in response to accusations addressed against him, which stated that his plans were consistent with the “economic peace” that Netanyahu called for (also known as “luxury under the occupation”), Fayyad stated that his plan is integrated and developmental in nature and that it aims at ending the occupation—not strengthening it. However, Fayyad’s problem is that he deals with an Israeli side that demands full concessions from Palestinians, yet does not commit to anything in return. Such frustration was evident from the Authority government and its leaders as Judaiziation and settlement expansion projects continued, hundreds of barricades and roadblocks were still existing, and many restrictions were placed upon Palestinian imports and exports and the movement of funds, etc.  Moreover, Fayyad’s government paid heavy political prices because it has committed itself to facing-off with and cracking down upon Hamas and other Palestinian resistive factions as well as neutralizing the role of the legislative assembly.  In addition, the survival of the Fayyad government is contingent upon the current Palestinian political divide and the disagreement over a unified Palestinian national platform.

Hamas, Reform and Change

During the first few years of the Authority’s inception, Hamas was not convinced that any legislative or political action through the authority was worthwhile, and it therefore boycotted the 1996 Palestinian elections.  Nevertheless, Hamas found itself in a new state of affairs with the end of the second Intifadah, the death of Arafat, and the election of Mahmud ‘Abbas as a president, and the signing of the Cairo Agreement which opened the doors to reform the PLO and hold municipal and parliamentary elections.  Hamas, whose popularity had soared, felt that the next concession to be made by the Authority would be targeting and crushing the Palestinian resistance. Hence, Hamas thought that by participating in the elections, it would provide itself with an important forum to impede this plan and strengthen the Palestinian stance with regard to the peace settlement.  Hamas also believed that defending the interests of Palestinian citizens through confronting administrative and financial corruption coincides with most of the movement’s provisional goals.    

Although participating in the elections did not receive unanimous support amongst Hamas’ ranks, Hamas still participated under the banner of “Reform and Change.”  After achieving its great victory in the elections and leading the 10th and 11th Palestinian governments, Hamas realized how hard—if not impossible—it is to bring about real reform or change without making grave concessions. Moreover, Hamas realized that by entering the political process, it was not given the opportunity to induce real reform; rather, it was merely subjugated under the conditions of the Oslo Accords.  In other words, Hamas could not bring forth any economic, administrative, or security reforms without paying huge political concessions (namely, the Quartet conditions), which literally strip the movement of its identity and goals.  In addition, when Hamas wanted to alter the “rules of the game” and free itself of the binding conditions of the Oslo Accords, it was met with a suffocative blockade, the arrest of its members of parliament, and the banning of its programs and activities.

What became clear from the experience of the past 5 years (after Hamas won the elections) is that whoever wants to bring forthreform under the Occupation must “dance to its tune.”  In other words, the reform process—despite its low probability of success—is strongly linked to paying heavy political concessions to the Israeli side, which are far too costly for any Palestinian resistance group to pay.

It can be argued that Hamas was perhaps successful in seizing political legitimacy just as it seized revolutionary legitimacy during Al-Aqsa Intifadah.  Moreover, it was successful in revealing the grim side of the Oslo Accords, and it was able to run the Gaza Strip according to its own conditions, without paying the required political concessions to Israel or the West.  However, the status of the currently-imposed blockade, the existing political and geographical divide, and the tremendous suffering which face the supporters of the resistance in the West Bank, etc … all seem to be prices whose magnitudes were unclear when Hamas embarked on its political path and led the Authority government.

If there is ever going to be a national peace undertaking in the near future, then Hamas must answer this call before anyone else: it must disclose its political platform under the auspices of new parliamentary elections; it must explain how it will deal with the expected concessions upon winning or losing the elections; it must describe how it plans to realize its banner which calls for reform and change, especially in the West Bank, where no reform or change can take place except within the boundaries of the Oslo Accords.  Or is affirming its political legitimacy and popular support all that Hamas needs to do?

What is important now is putting the Palestinian house in order, defining its priorities in accordance to its grand interests, and consequently revisiting and re-evaluating the role that the Authority must play—that is only if there is any real benefit to its existence! 

Translated by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations

The original Arabic article appeared on Al Jazeera net on 24/11/2010

 Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 18/12/2010