Ramzy Baroud and Romana Rubeo detail the decline of the PA’s importance to Palestinians, as new forms of resistance rise against Israeli oppression. Corrupt and brutal, the PA’s future is now dictated by the evolving resistance of Palestinian grassroots to both the apartheid regime and its enforcer.
When a leading member of the Islamic Jihad resistance movement, Khader Adnan died following a prolonged hunger strike in an Israeli prison on May 2, Palestinian Authority officials issued fiery statements. Condemning Israel, the PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, went as far as describing Adnan’s death as a “deliberate assassination” by Israel.
If one is to closely follow the political discourse emanating from the PA in Ramallah, one would mistake the PA leadership for a resistance group, not as the very entity that has historically served as the middleman between Palestinian Resistance and the Israeli military occupation.
For Israel, and the United States, the PA continues to serve a fundamental role, helping Israel secure its illegal settlements in occupied Palestine while lessening direct confrontation between Palestinian resisters and Israel. The PA, especially under the leadership of its President Mahmoud Abbas, has succeeded in fulfilling this role to the extent that even when the former US administration of Donald Trump withheld annual funds allocated to the PA, it refrained, at least initially, from withholding the $75 million usually provided by Washington to the so-called ‘security coordination’ – the apparatus which allows the PA and the Israeli military to jointly manage the occupation of the West Bank.
On the other hand, the PA is the largest employer of Palestinians, providing an estimated 150,000 posts in the Occupied Territories. This has allowed the PA to maintain its balancing act whereby it poses as a US ally, a trusted partner for Tel Aviv, but also the main outlet for Palestinian employment and thus everyday survival. With stubbornly high unemployment within a highly dependent economic model, even Palestinians who are frustrated with the PA endemic corruption and collaboration with Israel still line up every month to receive badly needed employment checks.
That paradigm however has proved unsustainable for several years. A new generation of Palestinians seems dissatisfied with the socio-economic equation which has been in operation since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, soon after the signing of the Oslo Accords. This generational shift has been apparent with the rise of the Jerusalem Intifada – also called the knife Intifada – in 2015, largely individual acts of young Palestinians attacking Israeli occupation soldiers in seemingly desperate cries against the ongoing injustices. That Intifada did not last for long, however, as it lacked the collective social elements which often sustain such uprisings. Many young Palestinians were killed during that time, many of them reportedly shot by trigger-happy Israeli soldiers without any evidence that soldiers’ lives were being threatened in the first place.
Just as Israel felt that a potential third Intifada was eliminated altogether, and as security coordination between the Israeli military and the PA continued unhindered, a succession of events starting in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem – particularly in the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan – ignited a much larger confrontation. As Israeli bulldozers were readying to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem amid settler and police violence, Gaza launched rocket attacks against Israel. A new form of resistance model soon followed, involving every Palestinian city and town, not only in Occupied Palestine, but in Israel, or what is known as Palestine 48 areas.
These events were crystallized in the May 2021 Unity Intifada, a watershed moment in the history of the Palestinian struggle. Following years of discord, disunity, and near complete separation between Gaza and the West Bank, the new Intifada restored the Palestinian discourse to a degree of cohesiveness and centrality unwitnessed since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.
Aware of the significance of the moment, the PA desperately tried to find a middle ground, elevating its rhetoric that targets the Palestinian people to appear as if a revolutionary force, while working discreetly with Israel as if little had changed on the ground. This mission became even more difficult and complicated with the rise of the Lions’ Den Brigades and other non-factional armed groups in the West Bank: More difficult because the PA’s responsibility towards Tel Aviv and Washington entailed that its security forces must help Israel in fighting these groups so that they may not spread beyond Nablus and Jenin to the rest of the West Bank; and complicated by the fact that many of these fighters are also members of Fatah’s own armed wing, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Fatah is the largest party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PA was largely founded as a replacement for the more unifying political structure of the PLO; and Fatah has historically dominated both. The rebellion within Fatah has been brewing for years, but Abbas, with Israel’s help, has managed to eliminate much of the competition. With Mohammed Dahlan, a corrupt warlord living in exile in the United Arab Emirates, and Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader locked up in an Israeli prison for 21 years, Abbas and his small circle of Fatah allies have dominated Fatah, the PLO, the PA and every aspect of Palestinian decision-making.
Desperate to end the armed rebellion in Fatah, which is likely to prove consequential in the event of Abbas’s demise, the PA offered the Lions’ Den, the Jenin Brigades, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, among others, permanent jobs in the PA security branches. It also offered to mediate with Israel so that Tel Aviv may grant them amnesty in exchange for putting down their weapons. Though such tactics have worked to some extent in the past, this time around they failed. For the rebelling youth in the West Bank, the new armed resistance is not motivated by economic conditions, but is rather part and parcel of the changing dynamics of resistance throughout Palestine, and the rise of a strong popular movement along with a different type of collective struggle.
The Lions’ Den: A New Resistance Model
In December 2022, just as Israel and even some Palestinians began talking about the Lions’ Den phenomenon in the past tense, a large number of fighters belonging to the newly formed Palestinian group marched in the old city of Nablus. Compared to the group’s first appearance on September 2 of the same year, the number of fighters who took part in the rally in Nablus on December 9 was significantly larger. They were better equipped, with matching military fatigues and greater security precautions. “The Den belongs to all of Palestine and believes in the unity of blood, struggle and rifles,” one fighter said in a speech, referring to the kind of collective resistance that surpasses factional interests.
Needless to say, the event was significant. Only two months earlier, then-Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz undermined the group in terms of number and influence, estimating it to be “of some 30 members” and pledging to “get our hands on them … and eliminate them.” The PA was also actively involved in suppressing the group, although using a different approach. Palestinian and Arab media reported on generous PA offers of jobs and money to Lions’ Den fighters should they agree to put down their weapons.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, however, have greatly misread the situation. They have wrongly assumed that the Nablus-born movement is a regional and provisional phenomenon that, like others in the past, can easily be crushed or bought. The Lions’ Den, however, seems to have increased in numbers and has already branched out to Jenin, Hebron, the Balata Refugee Camp, and even Jericho and Bethlehem.
For Israel, but also for some Palestinians, the Lions’ Den is an unprecedented problem, the consequences of which threaten to change the political dynamics in the occupied West Bank entirely. As Lions’ Den insignias are now appearing in every Palestinian neighborhood throughout the Occupied Territories, the group has succeeded in branching out from a specific Nablus neighborhood – Al-Qasaba – to become a collective Palestinian experience.
A survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in December 2022 highlighted this phenomenon. The poll showed that 72 percent of all Palestinians support the creation of more such armed groups in the West Bank. Nearly 60 percent fear that an armed rebellion risks a direct confrontation with the PA. A whopping 79 percent and 87 percent respectively refuse the surrender of the fighters to PA forces and reject the very idea that the PA has even the right to carry out such arrests.
These numbers attest to the reality on the street, pointing to the near complete lack of trust in the PA and the belief that only armed resistance, similar to that in Gaza, is capable of challenging the Israeli occupation. These notions are driven by empirical evidence, lead among them the failure of the financially and politically corrupt PA to advance Palestinian aspirations in any way, in addition to Israel’s complete disinterest in any form of peace negotiations and the growing far-right, fascist trend in Israeli society which is directly linked to the daily violence meted out against Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
UN Middle East Envoy Tor Wennesland recently reported that 2022 has been “the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since … 2005.” This claim was supported by Palestinian Ministry of Health statistics, which showed that 224 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, including 53 children in that year alone. These numbers are likely to increase in 2023, since the right-wing government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already carried out many deadly raids throughout Palestine, killing well over 100 Palestinians in the first four months of 2023.
But there is more to the brewing armed rebellion in the West Bank than Israeli violence alone.
Nearly three decades after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians have achieved none of their basic political or legal rights. On the contrary, emboldened right-wing politicians in Israel are now speaking of unilateral “soft annexation” of large parts of the West Bank. None of the issues deemed important in 1993 – the status of occupied Jerusalem, refugees, borders, water, etc. – are even on the agenda today. Since then, Israel has invested more in racial laws and apartheid policies, making it an apartheid regime par excellence. Major international human rights groups have accepted and reported on the new, fully racist identity of Israel.
With total US backing and no international pressure on Israel that is worthy of mention, Palestinian society is mobilizing beyond the traditional channels of the past three decades. Despite the work of some Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, the “NGO-ization” of Palestinian society, operating on funds largely obtained from Israel’s Western backers, has further accentuated class divisions among Palestinians. With Ramallah and a few other urban centers serving as the headquarters of the PA and a massive list of NGOs, Jenin, Nablus and their adjacent refugee camps have subsisted in economic marginalization, Israeli violence and political neglect.
Disenchanted by the PA’s failed political model and increasingly impressed by the armed resistance in Gaza, a rebellion in the West Bank is simply a matter of time, in fact, arguably it is already underway. What differentiates the early signs of a mass armed intifada in the West Bank from the Jerusalem Intifada of 2015 is that the latter was a series of disorganized individual acts carried out by oppressed West Bank youths, while the former is a well-organized, grassroots phenomenon with a unique political discourse that appeals to the majority of Palestinian society. And unlike the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005, the ensuing armed rebellion is rooted in a popular base, not in the PA’s security forces.
The closest historical reference to this phenomenon is the 1936-39 Palestinian Revolt, led by thousands of fellahin – peasants – in the Palestine countryside. The last year of that rebellion witnessed a large split between the fellahin leadership and the urban-based political parties. History is repeating itself. And, like the 1936 revolt, the future of Palestine and the Palestinian resistance – in fact, the entire social fabric of Palestinian society is affected. But why would the PA bow down so quickly to pressure from ordinary Palestinians on the street? The answer lies in the changing political mood in Palestine.
The Palestinian Occupation Authority
In September 2022, the arrest of two Palestinian activists, including the prominent figure Musab Shtayyeh, by PA police was not the first time that its Preventive Security Service (PSS) had arrested a Palestinian wanted by Israel. In fact, this group is largely linked to the routine arrest and torture of anti-Israeli occupation activists. Several Palestinians have died in the past as a result of PSS violence, the most recent being Nizar Banat, who was tortured to death in June 2021. The killing of Banat ignited a popular revolt against the PA throughout Palestine.
For years, various Palestinian and international human rights groups have criticized the PA’s violent practices against dissenting Palestinian voices, quite often within the same human rights reports that are critical of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. The Hamas government in Gaza has also received its fair share of blame. In its “World Report 2022,” published in January 2023, Human Rights Watch said that “the Palestinian Authority… systematically arrests arbitrarily and tortures dissidents.” This was neither the first nor the last time a human rights group had made such an accusation. The link between Israeli and Palestinian targeting of political dissidents and activists, for the same reason, is clear to most Palestinians.
At one point, some Palestinians may have believed that the PA’s role was to serve as a transition between their national liberation project and full independence and sovereignty on the ground. Nearly 30 years after the formation of the PA, however, such a notion has proved to be wishful thinking. Not only has the PA failed to achieve the coveted Palestinian state, but it has morphed into a massively corrupt apparatus whose existence largely serves a small class of Palestinian politicians and business people.
PA corruption and subsequent violence aside, what continues to irk most Palestinians is that the Authority, with time, became another manifestation of the Israeli occupation, curtailing Palestinian freedom of expression and carrying out arrests on behalf of the Israeli army. Many of those arrested by the Israeli military in the West Bank have experienced arrest by PA security forces, as well.
More tellingly, scenes of violent riots in the city of Nablus following Shtayyeh’s arrest were reminiscent of riots against Israeli occupation forces in the northern West Bank city or elsewhere in occupied Palestine. Unlike previous confrontations between Palestinians and the PA police – for example, following the killing of Banat – this time the violence was widespread and involved protesters from all Palestinian political groups, including the ruling Fatah faction. Perhaps unaware of the massive collective psychological shift that has taken place in Palestine in recent years, the PA government was desperate to contain the violence.
In August 2022, the Israeli army assassinated Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, a prominent Fatah military commander, along with two others. Not only did the PA do little to stop the Israeli military machine from conducting further such assassinations, but six weeks later it arrested Shtayyeh, who was a close comrade of al-Nabulsi – an act which suggests direct PA complicity in the Israeli assassination of Palestinians. Interestingly, Shtayyeh is not a member of Fatah, but a commander within Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Though Fatah and Hamas are meant to be intense political rivals, their political tussle seems to be of no relevance to armed Resistance groups in the West Bank.
More Palestinian resistance and Israeli/PA violence are likely to follow, for several reasons: Israel’s determination to crush any armed intifada in the West Bank before it spreads across the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the looming leadership transition within the PA due to Abbas’s old age, and the growing unity among Palestinians around the issue of armed and popular resistance.
Beyond the Palestinian Authority
The political mood in Palestine is clearly changing. The PA is facing its greatest legitimacy challenge to date as ordinary Palestinians seem to have moved on beyond Abbas’s cliched language, empty promises and fiery but redundant speeches. To weather the storm, the PA is desperate to reinvent itself and to renew whatever minimal legitimacy it once had among occupied Palestinians. That, however, might not be possible for several reasons:
First, the PA legitimacy crisis is not a new phenomenon. Resentment with the PA has been brewing for years. One opinion poll after another has indicated the low regard that most Palestinians have for their leadership, for Mahmoud Abbas and particularly for the “security coordination” with Israel.
Second, the torture and death of political dissident Banat in June 2021 erased whatever patience Palestinians had toward their leadership as the ‘protector’ of the people and the vanguard against Israeli violence. That event, itself a culmination of many other similar events, demonstrated to Palestinians that the PA is not an ally but a direct threat.
Third, the Unity Intifada of May 2021 emboldened many segments of Palestinian society throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For the first time in years, Palestinians now feel united around a single slogan and are no longer hostage to the geography of politics and factions. A new generation of young Palestinians has advanced the conversation beyond Abbas, the PA and their endless and ineffectual political rhetoric.
Fourth, armed struggle in the West Bank has been growing rapidly, independent from the PA’s pleas or threats. In fact, evidence of an armed intifada is growing in the Jenin and Nablus regions. What is particularly interesting, and alarming from the Israeli and PA viewpoint, about the nature of the budding armed struggle phenomenon is that it is largely led by the military wing of the ruling Fatah party, in direct cooperation with Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other Islamist and nationalist military wings.
While the Israeli response to all of this can easily be gleaned from its legacy of violence, the PA’s future course of action will likely determine its relationship with Israel and its Western supporters on the one hand and with the Palestinian people on the other.
Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is ‘Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out’. His other books include ‘My Father was a Freedom Fighter’ and ‘The Last Earth’. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net
Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and the managing editor of The Palestine Chronicle. Her articles appeared in many online newspapers and academic journals. She holds a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and specializes in audio-visual and journalism translation.