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The Palestinian crossroads

The Palestinians' current political impasse offers them only difficult choices, says Ghassan Khatib.
Ghassan Khatib
15 November 2011

The discussions about the future of the Palestinian Authority at a meeting of the Fatah movement's central committee in late October 2011 focused on the future of the governing body that has grown into numerous agencies and now employs nearly 200,000 people. In the meeting, Fatah's leadership sought to address the fact that the difficulty of transforming this transitional Palestinian Authority into a state has produced an uncomfortable - and even untenable - status quo. The speculation that has ensued includes even the notion of dissolving the authority altogether.

The current position, including the parameters of the Palestinian Authority, is less an outcome of the Oslo agreement signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) than a product of unilateral Israeli policies imposing facts on the ground. During the mid-1990s, Israel refrained from implementing certain aspects of this agreement, such as further redeployments from Palestinian land. In this way, Israel was by 2000 able to reverse certain aspects of the Oslo accords. For example, the Oslo agreement called for the creation of a safe passageway between the West Bank and Gaza strip, thus joining the divided territories; the scuttling of this detail contributed directly to the conditions that exist today, where the Palestinian Authority is restricted in its operations in Gaza.

The sum outcome of these reversals is a functional division. Israel keeps for itself full security control over all of the occupied territories (including land, land use and natural resources), while unilaterally leaving to the Palestinian Authority the job of providing services - while imposing many restrictions that make this job in fact impossible. (How can water be provided, when almost no wells are allowed to be drilled? How can sewage be processed, when permits are not granted for the construction of treatment plants? How can a dire need for more schools be met, when cement is not allowed to enter Gaza except under tight limits?)

For many years, Palestinians coped with this uncomfortable reality, hoping that eventually the Palestinian Authority would be allowed to develop through bilateral negotiations into an independent state. Now, however, the Palestinian people and their leadership - one as moderate as they come - have arrived at the conclusion that this approach is moving them not towards statehood but rather towards the consolidation of the status quo. It is clear as day that Israel intends, via this status quo, to maintain its occupation and ultimately prevent the two-state solution.

The raising of this question - how to prevent the entrenchment of the current reality and develop the Palestinian Authority into a state? - has generated a public discussion. Among the proposals that has arisen is that of dissolving the Palestinian Authority.

In my view, closing the doors of the Palestinian Authority is not an option for the Palestinian leadership. But it is not an option either for the Palestinian opposition, for groups in the PLO such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that were against the Oslo agreements, or for Hamas. It has taken Palestinians in the occupied territories years to build (and rebuild) the institutions that make up the Palestinian Authority and provide law and order, health, education and other crucial services. To remove these in one fell swoop would hurt Palestinians for generations.

There are other, less damaging paths. The request for statehood at the United Nations, at its heart intended to engage the international community and press the world to play an effective role in finding a way out of this destructive situation, is one of these. Redefining the Palestinian Authority is another.

It is also important to say, however, that if Israel is allowed to continue to apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority with impunity, it is quite possible that the Palestinian Authority could collapse on its own. Right now, the Palestinian leadership is perceived by its constituency - and even perceives itself - as being incapable of delivering. The peace process is not moving Palestinians towards ending the occupation. The democratisation process is being interrupted by continued political division. Even the economic situation is problematic due to Israel's restrictions and a continued need for foreign aid.

For all these reasons, the debate among Palestinians regarding how to find a way out of this impasse will continue. Palestinians seek to maintain their achievements, including the Palestinian Authority, while changing the reality that has been created by Israel's illegal actions. An important element in this debate is Israel's increasingly aggressive approach towards the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing expansion of settlements. These are making current conditions simply unsustainable.

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