Thirteen years ago, Sami was a Palestinian militant. A member of the al-Aqsa martyr brigades — the military wing of Fatah — he was arrested by Israel during the second intifada. After spending several years in prison, he was given a choice: He could either be released, go to work for the Palestinian Authority (PA), and support the peace process, or he could remain behind bars. He chose to work for the PA.
Sami, who agreed to speak to VICE News as long as we didn't use his real name, is one of countless Palestinians who live under this type of contractual agreement with Israel and the PA. He is also a living embodiment of why the latest round of peace negotiations failed — and why they were doomed to fail before they began.
On Wednesday, Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian political factions, announced their reconciliation and move toward forming a unity government for the first time in seven years. In response to the announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly blamed the failure of the peace talks on the reconciliation deal. “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace,” he said. “It is the direct continuation of the Palestinians’ refusal to advance the negotiations.”
Palestinians greeted the news with cautious optimism. Cheering crowds in both Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank celebrated the unification.
But despite the strong reactions the announcement prompted from all sides, a unity government is unlikely to change much of anything on the ground, because the basic problem with the peace talks is a systemic one that no amount of reconciliations or prisoner swaps will fix. Ultimately, that problem is the bloated, corrupt, aid-dependent, and relatively powerless Palestinian Authority.
“Through negotiations, the PA has installed a regime that convinced the Palestinians that this is the best situation they could ever be in,” George Abu Eid, a Palestinian journalist, told VICE News. “Even if most Palestinians are aware that these negotiations will lead us to nowhere.”
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The Palestinian Authority was formed out of the 1994 Oslo Accords, and was initially intended to be an interim government with limited control over parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and Gaza). The PA was supposed to be dissolved after five years, with further negotiations planned to determine its final status. But two decades and many rounds of peace talks later, the PA remains, largely unchanged.
Fatah, which had historically been the dominant Palestinian political party, led the PA unchallenged until 2007, when elections ushered in the Islamist party Hamas. Fatah and the rest of the PA then broke off ties with Hamas after the group took control of Gaza. Talks in 2011 and 2012 attempted to mend the rift, but led nowhere.
The PA's original role, outlined in Oslo, was not to act as a transitional or democratic government for the Palestinians, but rather to bear responsibility for the facets of the occupation Israel couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with, explained Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian academic and an editor of Journal of Palestine Studies.
'To the Palestinian Authority, everything — including human rights — must be sacrificed to a willful image of the peace process.'
This explains why many Palestinians view the PA’s role primarily as a rubber-stamp institution that implements decisions ultimately made by Israel. “The PA was invented as a sophisticated system of indirect rule, and it is absolutely essential for Israeli objectives of maintaining complete control over the West Bank,” Khalidi said.
“Fatah’s control of the Palestinian Authority and its maintenance of diplomatic relations have enabled it to make decisions on behalf of the Palestinian people among other states and multilateral bodies,” Palestinian human rights lawyer and author Noura Erakat recently argued in the New York Times. That's regardless of whether or not those decisions actually reflect the will of the Palestinian people.
The PA has two main responsibilities. The first is to act as a civil administration — which includes overseeing certain infrastructure, education, and health services — while Israel manages the nuts and bolts of the occupation by controlling borders, resources, and the Israeli military presence in the West Bank. The second duty is to cooperate with Israel in matters of security, which is often achieved through a carrot-and-stick approach. The PA uses a large network of informants to identify and arrest dissidents. It then offers them either employment and financial reward, or imprisonment and severe punishment. Much like Sami experienced.
The use of the “stick” on Palestinians by the PA is well documented. In fact, some of the most egregious examples of torture inflicted upon Palestinian detainees have been carried out by the PA itself; multiple deaths have been reported as a result.
The March raid in the Jenin refugee camp by the Israeli military, which killed three alleged Palestinian militants, was thought to be another example of cooperation between the PA and Israel. Israel entered the camp with the intent of arresting Hamza Abu Alhija, a suspected member of the al-Qassem Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. The PA, which routinely shares intelligence with Israel, had previously arrested Abu Alhaija and is widely believed to have played a role in this latest raid.
In response, nearly 15,000 Palestinians marched in Jenin in a funeral procession for the men killed, calling for an end both to the peace talks and to the PA’s security collaboration with Israel. Many accused Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the PA, of being complicit in the increasing violence carried out against Palestinians in recent years.
“During every protest in the West Bank, the one physical barrier that the Palestinians find in front of them before encountering the Israeli soldiers is the Palestinian police,” Palestinian journalist George Abu-Eid told VICE News. “To the Palestinian Authority, everything — including human rights — must be sacrificed to a willful image of ‘the peace process.’”
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The PA employs more than 150,000 Palestinians in the West Bank as civil servants, ministers, and police, and is therefore the means of financial support for a huge number of Palestinian families.
It's also financed in large part by the US and Israel; money enters the West Bank as “aid” and often gets funneled into the pockets of PA officials. Despite the graft being well-documented, this process continues to result in rampant corruption within the so-called “bubble” of Ramallah — the West Bank’s provincial capital and home of PA headquarters.
“[The PA] pays the salaries of most of Ramallah, but they also spend a lot of time outside the bubble providing just enough to keep people satisfied to co-opt them,” Khalidi said. “They don’t spend much, but a small amount of money in the form of food or medical services goes a long way in some remote and poorer parts of the West Bank.”
According to a report published in December of last year, about 2 billion euros of aid was “lost” between 2008 and 2012.
The report concluded, “Certainly, Palestinian corruption has been facilitated by Israel, as it is a joint effort with benefits and losses. Today, the Palestinian Authority lacks all kinds of authority and monitoring; legislative, executive and judicial…. There is no monitoring of, or accountability for, executive authority.”
Palestinians exasperated with the PA have few other options. Hamas and other parties have small bases of support in the West Bank, but since they don’t receive any funding from the US or Israel, they have relatively few resources at their disposal. It is unlikely that this will change, even with the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, since Hamas is still designated a terrorist organization by the US and Israel.
In response to the corruption and political stalemate within mainstream Palestinian politics, a burgeoning popular resistance has emerged in the past several years. This grassroots movement is loosely controlled by the Popular Resistance Committee, which helps to coordinate nonviolent acts of civil disobedience throughout the West Bank. These include weekly demonstrations in villages such as Bil’in and Nabi Saleh that have been taking place for the past several years, in addition to an international civil boycott campaign against Israel, called the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.
But it's unlikely this popular movement will ever gain any legitimate power. Since it remains so firmly outside the political establishment of Ramallah, it currently has little mainstream recognition — and since, as Abu-Eid explained, the PA views any grassroots movement as a threat, it will do what it can to keep it that way. And so the newly unified PA will remain in power until the next round of peace negotiations.
“Everyone in Palestine knows nothing will come of these talks,” Sami said. “The occupation has been outsourced. Who else occupies a country while the international community pays the bill? It's smart, and done under the idea of promoting peace.”
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928