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Western officials want the Palestinian Authority to lead postwar Gaza. Is it up to the task?

The U.S. and other nations are hoping the Palestinian Authority can fill the political void when the war between Israel and Hamas comes to some kind of conclusion. But with accusations against the Palestinian Authority of being autocratic, corrupt and inefficient, is it up to the task?

Once the conflict subsides, the U.S. wants Gaza and the West Bank to be governed by the Palestinian Authority

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday Oct. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
The U.S. and other nations are hoping the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, its president, can fill the political void when the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza comes to some kind of conclusion. The Palestinian Authority, however, is unpopular with many Palestinians. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press/Pool)

Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro, a well-known and outspoken critic of Israel, says he has been arrested, evicted and assaulted by Israeli soldiers. 

But he also has harsh words for Palestinian officials — specifically, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the governing body in the West Bank.

"The main problem of the Palestinian Authority is corruption," Amro, who has also been arrested by the PA, said in a recent interview. "A lot of corruption. And no elections, and no democracy — with human rights violations."

Amro's opinion is shared by many Palestinians who live in the West Bank, where the PA has some limited control in the occupied territory.

Still, the U.S. and other countries are counting on it to potentially fill the political void when the war between Israel and Hamas comes to some kind of conclusion.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, U.S. President Joe Biden wrote that "Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority, as we all work toward a two-state solution."

Palestinians look at destruction after Israeli strikes on Rafah, Gaza Strip.
Palestinians look at destruction after Israeli strikes on Rafah in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. With its infrastructure completely destroyed, coupled with more than 70 per cent of the population internally displaced, the challenges to govern Gaza for any government will be immense. (Hatem Ali/The Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also been pitching the idea, recently saying that post-war Gaza must include, "Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority."

But with accusations that the PA is autocratic, corrupt and inefficient, analysts question what role it could play in Gaza.

"When it comes to the Palestinian Authority having a practical role immediately, the day after the war, then the answer is they cannot have any practical role," said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who served in various positions within the PA.

'Can you expect them to govern Gaza?'

"Their ability to actually perform in the West Bank — whether on security [or] also on civilian governance issues — has been limited," al-Omari said. "If they can't govern ... in the West Bank, can you expect them to govern Gaza?"

The PA was established in the 1990s during the Oslo peace accords. It was given limited control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, administering services such as health, education and security. Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, a year after winning a landslide victory in Palestinian elections.

That support for Hamas was, as al-Omari noted in a recent essay in The Atlantic, partially due to a Palestinian backlash against the PA, which had ruled with an authoritarian streak, handed out government jobs and political favours to supporters and was accused of using public funds to enrich officials.

WATCH | Why are Palestinians dying in the West Bank?: 

Israel-Hamas war: Why are Palestinians dying in the West Bank? | About That

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As the number of dead and wounded from Israeli airstrikes climbs in Gaza, desperation is circulating throughout Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank. Andrew Chang explains how Hamas's attack last week, and Israel's response, have turned the West Bank into an active battleground.

 All this has soured many Palestinians against the PA, al-Omari told CBC News. 

Some of the disenchantment also comes from the PA's relationship with the Israeli Defence Forces, said al-Omari. Many Palestinians believe the PA is too close with the Israeli government, accusing Palestinian security forces of doing its bidding.

'Essential for Israel's security'

"The Israeli military and intelligence community are the Palestinian Authority's biggest advocates within the Israeli system because they see them as a reliable partner," al-Omari said. "They see them as essential for Israel's security." 

All this has led to a cratering of support for the leader of the PA, President Mahmoud Abbas, with some recent polls showing that nearly 80 per cent of Palestinians would like to see him resign.

The ailing 88-year-old leader came to power in 2005 and hasn't held an election since. Some Western governments are concerned that Abbas does not have sufficient authority, or the support of his people, to run Gaza.

Another hurdle in the path to a possible PA-run Gaza is the Israeli government, which isn't keen on having the PA extend its reach to the war-torn region, said Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies in California.

Netanyahu expresses misgivings about PA role for Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already expressed misgivings about the PA, at least in its current form, taking an active role in Gaza.

"There will not be a civilian authority that teaches its children to ... eliminate the state of Israel. There can't be an authority that pays salaries to the families of murderers," he said in a recent news conference.

Waxman said Netanyahu has long pursued a policy of disconnecting the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, and has viewed the PA as just another enemy to be marginalized.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at the Muqata in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Nov. 5 amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza. ((Jonathan Ernst/The Associated Press/Pool)

The PA taking over the Gaza Strip would reunify the two parts of Palestinian territory, "Something that has gone against Netanyahu's policy for more than a decade," Waxman said. "I don't see Netanyahu shifting on this."

The ultra-nationalist parties that make up Netanyahu's government would oppose anything that could strengthen the PA's position, he added. 

Meanwhile, the PA has made it quite clear that they wouldn't agree to govern unless it is part of a comprehensive attempt to reach a two-state solution, Waxman said.  

"That is the price that they can demand, because anything less than that would be potentially fatal to the Palestinian Authority's legitimacy."

Gaza governance questions

Some analysts also question whether the PA has the ability to govern Gaza.

"The question is not whether they have a role, which is yes, they do. The question is, why would you give it to them?" said Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington D.C.

Harb said Israel's occupation of the West Bank hamstrings the PA's ability to govern. Still, he questioned how effective they would be, what kind of policies would they institute, and how much legitimacy they would have in Gaza.

"You didn't provide services for the West Bank. Why would we trust that you would provide services for Gaza?" he said of how many average Palestinians view the PA. "You didn't provide security and protection for the Palestinian people in the West Bank. Why would we trust that they would do that in Gaza?"

 WATCH | Why Hamas is gaining support in the West Bank: 

Why Hamas is gaining support in the West Bank

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Many in the West Bank see Israel’s war against Hamas as an attack on the Palestinian people. CBC’s Margaret Evans breaks down why some say it will only increase support for the militant Islamist group.

Waxman also expressed skepticism over how the PA, with all of its internal problems, would function in Gaza — an area where they haven't been present for 16 years and which, after the war, will be "kind of a wasteland."

With its infrastructure completely destroyed, coupled with more than 70 per cent of the population internally displaced, the challenges for any government in Gaza would be immense, he said.

"And when you look at the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, you've got to wonder whether ... it's up to the task," Waxman said. "I don't think it is up to the task, even if it's willing to take on that task."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters, The Associated Press

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