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Palestine: the precarious present

The Palestinian Authority is gazing into an abyss, and it is beating people in the streets.

While news about Palestine has been dominated in recent days by an Al Jazeera investigation into Yasir Arafat’s death, the mainstream media has largely ignored another more serious series of events. This is that the Palestinian Authority – the regime that has administered several of small enclaves within the Israeli occupied West Bank since Arafat agreed to the Oslo agreements in the 1990s - is teetering at the edge of a political and financial abyss, and that its reaction to these circumstances is the brutal suppression the general population.

Violence broke out last Saturday and Sunday when protesters - campaigning against prospective negotiations between the PA’s unelected President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz  - were confronted by the Palestinian Security Forces and subject to vicious beatings that left several protesters badly injured. When most of the violence took place, on Sunday, approximately 200 protesters were met with a brigade of around 100 PA Security Forces in uniform and some 30-40 Mukhabarat (secret police) and plainclothes police officers that had infiltrated the crowd.

The PA police blocked the protest on the main street preventing it from heading towards its planned destination; the Presidential compound (al-Muqata’a). Police attacked the demonstration, dragged protesters to the ground, kicking them and beating them with batons. Some 20 protesters were arrested and/or injured by the security forces, including two journalists. Eventually, perhaps fearful of further confrontations, Abbas moved to appease the protesters and the meeting between him and Mofaz was rescheduled to a different time and location.

According to Abbas’ calculation, it was the symbolism that had sparked public outrage. Indeed the fact that the meeting was supposed to take place in the Muqata’a where Yasser Arafat had been besieged for almost two year by the Israeli Military - under the command of none other than the then General Shaul Mofaz Israel’s Chief of Staff (and later Defence Minister) - was deeply problematic. However, Abbas’ mere reorganisation of the meeting, to a different time and place, demonstrated either that the PA leadership’s was either intent on cynically manipulating public opinion or that it simply lacked any real understanding of public concerns.

Further, in the days since the protests the PA has attempted to appear more consolatory. Two enquiries were established, and General Adnan Damiri, of the PA Security Forces, was interviewed on the PA TV network and appeared apologetic but, again, he did not back down from the position adopted by the PA - that the rescheduled meeting would go ahead. However, as analysis elsewhere demonstrates, the PA Security Forces actions are in fact no aberration but rather, entirely consistent with their raison d’etre and the interests of their US, European backers and the Israeli military.

The PA Security Forces have acted in a similarly violent way on previous occasions. In 2007, a partisan crackdown against Hamas in the wake of the unity government’s collapse was carried out with US, Israeli and British support and involved murder, torture and illegal imprisonment. Though, arguably, such extreme violence was not the primary methodology of the PA’s rule until it met with crisis. Rather, until that point the PA leadership had preferred to buy support, sometimes through corruption. This usually involved handing out lucrative monopoly contracts to domestic and diaspora elites and employing hundreds of thousands of people in a bloated public sector.

Yet, where Europe and the US enabled both this kind of behaviour through making available vast quantities of aid, it also made this aid conditional on Palestinian acquiescence to a system of rule that would entrench Israeli dominance even further. Thus, in spite of the Oslo process’ grand vision of Palestinian statehood, the PA’s real role was to serve as a fig leaf for a new phase in Israel’s occupation.

The ‘Oslo years’ ended with the collapse of that status quo in 2000. There followed half a decade of disorder and when Israel re-invaded the cities of the West Bank. Out of this disorder, and after the death of Arafat, the PA was (gradually) given another chance to prove itself as Israel pursued a ‘scorched earth’ withdrawal to more defensible military lines. In this context, what inspired the PA’s shift toward violence against its own people in 2007 was that it needed to re-establish control of the West Bank in order to prove its worth to the donors. In short, it had to rescue the political logic that justified its existence from growing popular disenchantment, manifest in the form of Hamas’ election victory of 2006. The PA won that battle in the West Bank (though it lost in Gaza) and returned to established form as a conduit through which donor aid could be used to buy general consent.

In the immediate aftermath of the schism with Hamas the PA road high in the international arena; it offered international donors a programme of ‘institution-building’ that matched near-perfectly their fondest desires – becoming a new front line in the ‘war on terror’ and endorsing a raft of neo-liberal economic reforms that would integrate with the occupation. At the same time the PA made more bold promises to its public. It claimed that it would unilaterally bring about a Palestinian state and to build the underdeveloped private sector. Thus far, it has evidently failed on both of these fronts.

The PA’s latest violence is also a symptom of crisis. But, in this case the PA is in a position that is arguably even more vulnerable than it was in 2007. This time it faces almost certain financial collapse with a structural deficit of around $1.3 billion and no immediate means of plugging the gap. Israel knows that, if the PA does descent into total disorder as a result of being unable to meet its financial obligations, then the occupation apparatus will have to take on more responsibility in the West Bank – something that the, ostensibly hawkish, Netanyahu government wishes to avoid. This perhaps explains why Israel approached the IMF for a bridging loan on behalf of the PA last week. Yet, because this request was denied the PA continues to flounder and pursue austerity measures that are deeply unpopular, particularly in combination with the perceived return of corruption at the highest levels.

But the PA’s current financial concerns are again a product of its relationship to the West. In fact, when the PA made all its promises to the international community at the Paris conference in 2007, international donors greeted it with pledges of vast financial support – coming to some $7.7 billion, far greater than the $5.6 billion that the PA had originally sought. However, the scale of this promise belies the lack of political will among donors to fulfil their promises. In 2008, it emerged that the PA was facing a major fiscal crisis. This was partly because, the total aid actually paid to the PA was only around ten per cent of that which had been promised at Paris, at approximately $900 million.

However, the problems for the PA were not limited to the failure of the donors to fulfil their promises. Also problematic were the mechanisms employed by donors to make their regular contributions. The nature of these made it very difficult for the PA to plan into the medium term. According to UNCTAD:

Since Paris, the PA has been unable to plan expenditures beyond a two-month horizon due to difficulties in securing support for the recurrent budget, and delays in translating development project pledges to actual commitments.

In addition to this, the PA faces an uncertain political environment. Mahmoud Abbas lost a close political ally with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the leadership will be viewing the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy with suspicion. It was against this backdrop that the PA sought to double down on its relationship to Israel with the meeting between Mofaz and Abbas.

In the final analysis nobody really knows what killed Arafat, but there is no doubt that back in 2004 his death was seen as a threshold that allowed different Palestinian leaders to come to the fore, and it was them that promised a different path to Palestinian liberation. Yet, what was true of the PA leadership then, is true now. It remains trapped in a political and financial structure that itself helped to construct. It is surrounded on all sides by what it sees as the threat of oblivion and in its desperate efforts to survive it has resorted to brutality attacking its own people.

About the author

Anan Quzmar is coordinator of the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and of ActionPalestine UK.

Phil Leech is a PhD student in International Relations of the Middle East at Exeter University’s Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, he can be found on twitter @phil_haqeeqa.


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