At the level of its internal performance, the Palestinian unity government was slow in taking action in the face of the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip (GS). Its response was restrained and disconnected from the reality and magnitude of the challenges and needs at hand. At the same time, it maintained an iron grip on the West Bank (WB), in order to prevent it from crossing the “solidarity” barrier to an escalation in popular uprisings and protests.
At the political level, the war witnessed great disparity between the stances taken in two stages by the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s leadership. The first stage lasted over two weeks, during which the PA dealt with the situation in a slow and cold manner that was not commensurate with the magnitude of the aggression. During the second stage, it raised its ceiling in line with popular demands and the demands of the resistance, while continuing to have gaps in its political performance.
This assessment comes to four possible scenarios: between building on the unity experience and consecrating it as a new model for the management of the national project and of the dispute, or returning to the “malicious and factional” performance and using the problematic funding, salaries and reconstruction to void the accomplishments of the resistance and try to realize a “soft” and gradual Fatah dominance of GS.
The third scenario is to engage in a factional and political struggle for the control of GS, in cooperation with the axis that opposes Islamic political movements.
The fourth scenario is the case of a mounting popular resistance in the WB that creates a new reality, which ends the functional status of the PA and escalates the confrontation with the occupation. While the first scenario is the most appropriate and feasible option, the second scenario, unfortunately, remains a realistic approach that is closer to the mentality governing the PA performance.
The Israeli aggression on GS came almost five weeks after the formation of the Palestinian national unity government that was formed to end, theoretically, seven years of division in the PA’s structure between two political currents and two approaches divided between two different regions.
This aggression came at a time when this reconciliation government was facing many thorny issues, such as the fate of the employees of the caretaker government in GS, payment of salaries, GS electricity, security administration of GS, putting a stop to political arrests in the WB and release of detainees, and the implementation of basic benefits arising from the reconciliation agreement. Most notable among these is conducting legislative and presidential elections with simultaneous guarantees of transparency and fairness.
When the aggression started, the government of Prime Minister, Dr. Rami Hamdallah, had not been able to address any of these files. Rather evidence pointed to its becoming a government of contention, in which each party tries to prove its dominance of the other by using various pressure tactics, most important among them are funding, salaries, electricity and the fate of the Rafah Crossing.
The formation of this reconciliation government came as a result of regional and international challenges and circumstances, which somewhat made the unity option a necessity. For in GS, the Hamas government was facing a mounting challenge from the Egyptian military regime, which was tightening the screws on it and had begun to take an aggressive stance against it, an unprecedented stance in Egyptian-Palestinian relations. While in the WB, the PA in Ramallah had reached a deadlock after the negotiating process, ongoing for seven years since the Annapolis conference, came to a halt without having any outcome worth mentioning.
a. The PA’s Role in Supporting GS in the Face of the Aggression:
Since its formation, this unity government gave GS a relatively limited and disproportionate weight; as only four ministers out of seventeen lived there, namely the ministers of Justice, Public Works and Housing, Labor and Women’s Affairs. At the beginning of the aggression, several sectors in GS were subjected to systematic destruction; most important among them the sectors of health and infrastructure. Government and security headquarters were also subjected to great destruction. The reconciliation government was supposed to mobilize all its capabilities and energies and to try to support its medical teams in GS with operation and emergency rooms, along with direct financial support. It should have tried, as much as possible, to supply them with logistical support.
In fact, the government of Dr. Rami Hamdallah met for the first time on 10/7/2014, that is, on the third day of the aggression that began on 8/7/2014, and declared a state of emergency. None of its ministers went to GS, and it did not clarify its position in this regard until President Mahmud ‘Abbas announced on 14/07/2014, the seventh day of the aggression, that he will send a number of ministers to submit immediate reports on the needs of GS citizens. The next day, Minister of Health Jawad ‘Awwad was the first to arrive, and it was only natural that his belated presence would not be met with public approval.
On the financial level, the Hamdallah government established a special fund for the relief of GS, to which, by 21/07/2014, the 14th day of the aggression, it allocated the amount of 35 million shekels. Then on 24/7/2014, the 17th day of the aggression, it raised the amount to 55 million shekels, approximately $15.5 million. This means that the reconciliation government spent an average of $9 per Gazan to enhance his position in the face of this aggression. As for salaries, the Hamdallah government did not pay, as of this writing, the salaries of the employees appointed by the Isma‘il Haniyyah government, despite what they and their families endured over the 51 days of the aggression.
Despite the fact that this government announced the GS a disaster area on 27/7/2014, the 20th day of the aggression, no administrative or practical liabilities followed from this announcement. This government’s efforts remained confined to trucks of medicines every few days and limited financial aid and relief, in addition to paying for the fuel of the GS power station, as collection of electricity bills was not feasible during the war. Rather the government showed poor sensitivity to the conditions in GS when it announced that the school year will be resumed as usual despite the presence of tens of thousands of displaced people in schools. It declared the freezing of this decision only three days before the supposed deadline for starting the school year.
b. The Role of the PA in the WB During the Aggression:
Had the WB joined the confrontation, it could have brought enormous strategic advantage to the Palestinians, and it could have shortened the duration of the battle and raised the ceiling of achievements. Rather the iron grip of the PA’s security services kept the WB from bypassing the “solidarity” barrier during the 51 days of aggression. It seemed that the economic peace approach, “nation-building” and security coordination have succeeded in turning the WB into a territory separate from GS in its vision and path over three successive wars that the GS fought alone. Throughout the days of the war, confrontations with Palestinian security forces occurred almost daily, the arrests continued, as well as the Palestinian–Israeli security meetings. The Qalandiya checkpoint confrontations on the 27th night of Ramadan were witness to this fact. As the only time that large numbers of Palestinians were allowed to go past the Palestinian security barriers, the area around the Qalandiya checkpoint saw violent clashes, the like of which has not been seen in years.
First Phase: Scoring Points Until Day 14 of the Aggression:
With the start of the aggression, the PA leadership saw an opportunity to score more points on Hamas and enhance the latter’s regional and international isolation. The matter went beyond registering points to having an unjustified anticipation of Israeli escalation, in a way that imparts certain reliance on this escalation and its consequences. The PA president announced on 11/7/2014 that the Israeli government has made the decision to wage a ground war, i.e., on the fourth day of the aggression; while actually this decision was not issued by the Israeli government until late in the night of 17/7/2014, i.e., at the end of the tenth day of the aggression.
Scoring points on Hamas was manifested through:
1. The participation of the PA president in a peace conference organized by the Haaretz newspaper in Tel Aviv, on 8/7/2014, the first day of the aggression, at a time when Israeli war planes had left 24 dead and 152 wounded at a distance of 60 kilometers to the south, in GS.
2. Reliance on time to deepen Hamas predicament: This was reflected in a request made by PA President Mahmud ‘Abbas on 12/7/2014, the fourth day of the aggression, for the postponement of the meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss the aggression on GS.
3. Taking advantage of the Egyptian antagonistic stance towards Hamas and working to deepen the alienation between the two sides. This was reflected in ‘Abbas’ role in developing the first Egyptian initiative without consulting any of the resistance factions that were engaged in battle in GS, and pushing toward accelerating its launch in the media. President ‘Abbas has confirmed his role in the initiative on 18/7/2014, when he said that he called President Sisi twice and asked him to present the initiative. The next day, ‘Abbas met with Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzuq and asked him to accept it immediately and unconditionally.
Moreover, the PA presidency released statements to the same effect, that the opening of the Rafah crossing is done according to the 2005 Agreement and that Egypt has no role in its opening and closing. On 19/7/2014, the president issued a statement denouncing what he called “the smear and skepticism campaign being waged by some quarters about the validity of Egyptian assistance,” considering those campaigns “suspicious and aim to harm Egypt’s reputation.” These statements were made to invest again in the dispute between Egypt and Hamas.
This performance was concomitant with the academic and legal debates that the PA was conducting about “providing international protection” or “placing Palestine under international trusteeship.” The Palestinian leadership, which was in continuous meeting and engrossed in a theoretical debate about the most appropriate formula for the request, reached a solution on 13/7/2014, the sixth day of the aggression, with ‘Abbas handing a message to the UN Envoy Robert Serry, asking to put the Palestinian people under international protection.
Second Phase: The Negotiating Unit and Common Demands:
The reversal in the position towards the aggression started on 19/7/2014, less than 48 hours after the Israeli ground operation began, and after the news started leaking of the difficulties it was facing and the losses it incurred. The Secretary of the Executive Committee of the PLO, Yasir ‘Abd Rabbo launched the first trial balloons for this position on 19/7/2014, the 12th day of the attack, when he said: “We failed in the negotiations … and now Gaza is defending the Palestinian national project.” Then the remarks of the President ‘Abbas on 21/7/2014, the 14th day of the attack, came to pursue this position and adopt the terms of the resistance factions put forward in response to the Egyptian initiative.
The new position of the PA was crowned with the high-pitched unprecedented speech of its President Mahmud ‘Abbas in 22/7/2014, the 15th day of the aggression, in which he said “The killing and destruction will not frighten us. We will rebuild what the aggression has destroyed… and we will dress our wounds when we inevitably win and the banners of Jerusalem fly high over al-Aqsa and the
During this phase, an ‘Abbas–Mish‘al meeting took place in Doha on 21/7/2014, in which it was agreed to send ‘Azzam al-Ahmad to Cairo to participate in the negotiations. Then on 23/7/2014, the PA put forward the idea of a temporary truce to allow negotiations; and then it was decided on 29/7/2014 to form a unified delegation that includes representatives from the PA, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) and Hamas. Subsequently, a unified Palestinian paper of demands was formulated, which in the end became the basis of the ceasefire agreement reached on 27/8/2014.
During this period, the PA sent political messages that seemed contradictory. However, these messages combined the wish to deal positively with the outstanding performance of the resistance and the broad public pressure that supports it, with the state of confusion and distress that the trend which is pro-settlement and coherent with the regional environment found itself in. We noticed:
1. The unity of the Palestinian negotiating team, unlike what the case was previously, and how they preserved this unity until a ceasefire was reached, despite some complications that have marred the negotiation process.
2. Overt political adoption of Palestinian resistance demands, and the unity of Palestinian demands found in the Palestinian paper delivered to the Egyptian leadership.
3. The PA’s use of it positive relationship with the Egyptian regime to reach a feasible understanding.
4. Controlling the ceiling of WB solidarity with GS, to the extent that does not hurt the PA’s obligations towards Israel. Implementing arrests and engaging in confrontations with protesters during the same night in which the PA president delivered his fiery speech.
5. Stalling in the signing of the Rome Statute that clears the way to joining the International Criminal Court (ICC). In spite of all the demands made by the PA leadership, and its repeated threats to complete this step, the PA found a way to delay the matter throughout the 51 days. It asked all the factions to sign memorandums that give it the right to join this statute; but no sooner the aggression ended than it launched “a political surprise” that returned the signing of the Rome Statute to its former position as the last of solutions.
6. Being keen to maintain a position that is closer to the Egyptian regime than to Hamas; while emphasizing repeatedly that the Egyptian initiative is based on the 2012 understandings. In addition, questioning Hamas intentions, and pointing to the damages and casualties it caused because of its insistence on fighting, in spite of the presence of a solution in the Egyptian paper.
Israel was easily able to upset the new PA position, through fabricated information that 93 Hamas militants “confessed” to organizing a “coup attempt” in the WB. The PA president adopted immediately this narrative and as it is. On 21/8/2014, he went to the second Doha meeting with Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khalid Mish‘al, being provoked and haunted by internal apprehension. So at the height of the aggression on GS, most of the talks between the two parties focused on the Shabak narrative of a “coup attempt,” and the recall of a log of unproven events carrying the same title.
It seemed that Israel knows how to recall the internal nervousness of the PA president in the most dangerous junction, and with the stroke of a pen. At the same time, the PA status was enhanced in the eyes of the Israelis as a middle ground for concluding an agreement. Thus the necessity to return the PA and its security control to GS, became a matter of consensus between the Israeli forces of the left and center; stressing that any talk about the harbor and the airport must be linked to handing them to the PA.
Third: Possible Scenarios of PA Conduct Following the Gaza War:
First Scenario: Activating reconciliation and national partnership, building on the unity state that prevailed during the period of negotiating the cease-fire, and working to build a state of “integration” between the two programs. This will overcome the difficulties of opening the airport and the harbor, and will build an approach to political negotiations based on the achievements of the resistance.
Second Scenario: Return to the period of narrow political and factional malice, and trying to take advantage of the international and regional situation to void the military achievement of Hamas and the other resistance factions. Using relief, reconstruction and salaries as the main openings of a new internal period of aggravation, but under catastrophic conditions in GS; in a way that enables the PA leadership and Fatah to control the GS, gradually marginalize the resistance forces and their role, and continue the implementation of the “Oslo Accord” obligations on GS.
Third Scenario: The magnification of malice as a consequence of the fear of the growing strength of Hamas and the resistance factions. It would also try to join the regional axis, hostile to the Islamic political movements, in an attempt to regain security control of GS.
Fourth Scenario: Forming a state of popular resistance in the WB, under the influence of the resistance achievements in GS. The accumulation of Israeli retaliatory measures, along with an increase in the frustration of the PA and Fatah with the peace process; in a way that, in the end, leads to the fall of the PA functional role equation. It would also lead to a new reality based on having Israel bear its responsibilities, and having the Palestinians focus on various forms of resistance to end the occupation.
The first scenario is attainable if the two parties had sufficient realism and rationalism, and if they come to an understanding based on the serious and sincere application of the Palestinian National Reconciliation Agreement. This agreement was built on genuine partnership in leadership and the management of institutions.
The second scenario is unfortunately more likely, in light of the long malicious experience in the performance of the PA leadership, even in the early days of the aggression. Then came the timing of the attitude change towards the aggression to indicate that it relied on a field reading of the early and big Israeli losses in the ground operation. The PA wanted to come out with minimal losses, and not necessarily to embrace new convictions related to giving support to the path of armed resistance. It was not a true abandonment of the competitive partisan mentality.
The fourth scenario is feasible if objective conditions were available, which need more time for their maturation and elaboration. The third scenario seems less likely in the presence of a realistic tendency in a number of PA leaders who are aware of the impossibility of its application on the ground, and consider it a recipe for an internal conflict with dire consequences.
1. Emphasis on moving away from the partisan and factional mentality in the management of the Palestinian national project.
2. Emphasis on dealing with the resistance as a lever, and not as an impediment to the Palestinian national project.
3. Emphasis on activating the document of national reconciliation in a serious and effective manner, and on the bases of true partnership of all Palestinian forces at home and abroad.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Ziad Ibhais for authoring the original text on which this strategic assessment was based .