Living in limbo

The old/new idea of dissolving the Palestinian Authority is being floated again among Palestinians, especially by intellectuals and, to a lesser extent, politicians. The reason why it’s not gaining wider currency is the fear of the practical consequences of such a move rather than its political significance. The suggestion itself has to be understood as a reflection of the frustration with the failure of the peace process as well as the poor governance record of the PA.

The PA was designed as an interim authority. In fact, it is officially called an interim authority. It was created as part of a process of interim arrangements that were to last five years while a final agreement was negotiated between the two sides. The understanding then, almost by everybody, was that the interim arrangement should lead to a two-state solution.

Regardless of the reasons why–these are a separate debate–Palestinians have now reached a point of stagnation in which they are living in limbo. They are neither under a clear-cut situation of occupation against which they could be expected to resist and fight, nor is their interim authority leading them to an end of occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Much of this lack of momentum is a result of international inaction. At a certain point in time, Israel managed to convince the US and some others that the obstacle to moving the process forward lay on the Palestinian side and in particular with the leadership of Yasser Arafat. But the Palestinian public has since elected the keenest proponent of a negotiated solution based on international legality, Mahmoud Abbas, and still Israel has proven that it is not mature enough and ready to negotiate an end to occupation. On the contrary, Israel, during and after redeploying its forces from the Gaza Strip, has increased its illegal settlement activities in the West Bank and consolidated its system of control there. With little to no intervention and protection from the outside, Palestinians started seeking alternative approaches.

As a part of this trend, some moved to support other political forces, notably the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. Another approach was to look at different strategies, including rewinding the situation to the pre-peace process and pre-PA days when things were clearer, at least in the eyes of international public opinion. In this context, some are suggesting dissolving the PA. Part of the rationale is that the existence of a PA deceives public opinion and creates an absurd situation whereby both the international and the Palestinian publics expect the PA to fulfil the functions of a state while it has neither the authority, institutions nor responsibilities of such a body. The gist of the idea is to throw back the hot potato of direct responsibility for Palestinian welfare to the Israelis and the Israeli occupation.

There are many problems with this suggestion, however. The first and most important is political. The Palestinian people are supposed to be struggling for their own independent authority. In order to do so, it would seem pertinent to fight to strengthen and improve the existing Authority rather than give it up, especially since the efforts needed to end the occupation are not less than the efforts needed to go the other way.

The second problem is the practical implication of dissolving the PA. The number of individuals depending for their livelihoods on the existence of the PA ranges between 200,000 and 250,000, counting employees, prisoners and the families of those killed during fighting. Factor in the average family size and it can be said with relative accuracy that more than one million Palestinians depend directly on the PA.

Furthermore, would Palestinians accept to reverse some of the benefits the PA has (however fitfully) bestowed upon them, notably in running some of their own basic and sensitive services like health and education? There are, right now, roughly one million Palestinian schoolchildren being taught by some 40,000 teachers and educated according a Palestinian-developed curriculum. Reversing that situation means these systems will be handed back to the Israelis and an Israeli military officer will again, as in the past, run the education system with all the implications that will have.

But maybe the most immediate obstacle to the idea is that Israel might not accept to take back its direct responsibility as an occupier. In other words, if the president of the PA should leave his office and the government and officials in the ministries follow suit, Israel might not move in to fill the vacuum. What would happen then? Would public pressure build against those who left their posts? Who would guarantee law and order? Might Israel not convince a "collaborator government" to fill the vacuum?

There is little doubt that raising the option of dissolving the PA is important in that it reminds everybody what a desperate situation Palestinians are currently languishing in. But in order to pursue the idea seriously, much more careful calculation and thinking is required.