Amid the anticipation of Israeli annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank, there have been significant developments on the Palestinian political scene. It seems that there is an increasing likelihood that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will be dissolved, or at the very least, its powers greatly reduced.
In late May, Palestinian officials announced that they are ceasing security coordination with Israel in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation threats. Shortly after, PA security forces withdrew from areas jointly monitored with Israeli forces in north and east Jerusalem, including from the towns of Abu Dis, Bedou, Qatana and Beit Iksa. Around the same time, the PA also announced that it will no longer accept transfers of funds from taxes Israel collects on its behalf which go towards paying for salaries and services in the West Bank and Gaza. It also stopped issuing permits for Palestinians living in the West Bank to cross into Israel.
This created confusion and led to chaotic scenes in front of Israeli liaison offices in the West Bank, particularly in Al-Khalil (Hebron), where thousands of Palestinians gathered to apply for permits. The PA stood by and did not intervene. It has done little to stop the flow of workers, businesspeople and sick individuals crossing into Israeli territory every day, despite the emergency situation surrounding the spread of the coronavirus. In the past, the movement of Palestinians was always coordinated between Israel and the PA to ensure security and order. This development seems to indicate that the Israeli authorities are gradually establishing a direct line of communication and relations with the Palestinian population, sidelining the PA’s mediatory role.
The authority was established in 1994 on the tail of the Oslo Accords and was supposed to be an interim body during the transition to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s aggressive encroachment on Palestinian rights and path towards statehood over the past few years, as the Trump administration gave it full backing, have severely undermined the PA’s political powers and seem to be reducing it to a service provider – something Ramallah would not accept.
The PA has feared this scenario for a while – Israel weakening its power by establishing direct relations with the Palestinian public and eventually eliminating its political role. Recently, PA officials have voiced such fears and have warned that the PA will not be reduced to a local council or a charity.
At the same time, the PA has taken a number of security measures in preparation for the annexation. According to reports in the Israeli media, in June it removed illegal weapons from its offices, fearing members of Hamas may try to take them and launch an armed assault on Israeli forces if tensions escalate in the West Bank.
These weapons have been collected from the civilian population during disarming operations since the end of the second intifada in 2005. The PA is also in possession of 26,000 Kalashnikovs and pistols and dozens of armoured vehicles under licence from the Israeli authorities, which control the armament of the Palestinian forces as per the Oslo Accords.
According to Israeli TV channel Kan, the PA has made plans to hand over these weapons to Israel, in the event of an escalation in the West Bank following the annexation. It plans to send them in trucks to the Israeli military base at the Beit El Israeli settlement north of Ramallah and leave the Israeli army to assume full responsibility for the security of the West Bank.
Meanwhile, there have also been reports that the Palestinian intelligence has received instructions to remove secret security documents from its offices. Given that Israel has full knowledge of the PA’s security operations – either because it hands over such information directly to the Israelis, or because the latter have their spies in its ranks – this move is likely intended to prevent the Palestinian people from laying their hands on such files, which could potentially implicate PA figures in collaboration with Israel. The last time the PA issued such orders was at the beginning of the second intifada in 2000.
The sidelining of the PA is not only a problem for Ramallah, it will soon be a problem for Israel as well. If the PA proceeds with dissolving its security apparatus, the onus of providing security in the West Bank will fall on the Israeli authorities, which hides many risks for them.
Israeli scholars have already warned of the consequences of sidelining the PA. In an op-ed for Israeli media outlet Ynet, Michael Milstein, the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University, wrote that the present situation can turn into a “nightmare” for Israel. According to Milstein, as the Palestinians establish direct relations with Israel, they will start seeking an improvement of living standards and services from the Israeli authorities and eventually demand citizenship, which would be another step towards a one-state solution.
Indeed, this realisation may be one of the factors, along with Western pressure, which has caused the Israeli government to delay the announcement of the annexation. Wiser heads in Israel’s conservative leadership may have prevailed, having recognised that their aggressive expansionism in recent years may have accelerated Israel’s advance towards the dreaded but inevitable outcome of their desire to colonise all of Palestine – the establishment of one Israeli-Palestinian state with equal citizenship for all inhabitants.