Autonomy forever?

The recent internal Palestinian crisis initiated by the task of forming a cabinet–a crisis resolved only hours ago–cannot be described as the kind of political emergency experienced by any normal government, or even as the healthy practice of democracy. Indeed, it seems more that this crisis is spurred by the serious existential questions that now surround the life of the Palestinian Authority.

It is not possible to understand these internal Palestinian conflicts and bitter disputes divorced from the failing peace process or Israeli-Palestinian confrontations. In the last three years, Israel has been systematically working to either dismantle the Palestinian Authority or cause fundamental changes in its character and makeup. To do this, the Israeli authorities have slowly narrowed the physical and political space within which the Authority is able to move. By eliminating the political prospect that this Palestinian Authority might develop into the government of a state, Israel challenges its reason for being. By narrowing Palestinian economic space through sanctions and restrictions on the movement of people and goods, Israel keeps the Palestinian Authority at its economic mercy and transfers at whim Palestinian tax revenues. International aid often plays the role of subsidizing the expenses of the occupation, thus deepening Palestinian independence and easing Isra! el’s financial burden. The Israeli military has cut deeply into Palestinian security space with its repeated and extensive operations in areas that were once under Palestinian security control. Finally, Israel continues to narrow the geographic space of the Palestinian Authority by reoccupying towns, restricting the movement of all Palestinians (as well as officials of the Palestinian Authority), expanding its settlements and confiscating land. What remains is barely room to move.

These Israeli practices, coupled with Israeli and American conditions prescribing under whom and under what conditions the Palestinian Authority is a partner, are largely responsible for the continuing internal debate in the Palestinian political arena. Maneuvering room is extremely limited, producing many differences over the best way to handle these restrictions and dilemmas. A specific example of this is the debate among Palestinians over the role of Palestinian security. The Israeli and American governments said they were only willing to deal with the Palestinian Authority in the context of the peace process if Palestinians unified their security apparatuses–with the intent, of course, of taking specific actions against the Palestinian opposition.

That might make sense in theory, but when we consider the ongoing Israeli practices listed above, the most glaring of which is Israel’s negligence towards the roadmap obligation of stopping settlement expansion (which has no security implications whatsoever), the Palestinian Authority finds it difficult to discern the best course back to peace. What is in the best interest of Palestinians? There is a real conflict here in the Israeli and international message.

Another example of the conflicting interests at play is when the Palestinian Authority, headed legitimately by President Yasser Arafat, is required to come up with a regularly formed cabinet that has the confidence of the parliament and all the security powers required to enforce law and order, while this same elected president is unable to leave the confines of one building, meet with his constituency, oversee the security forces which he commands according to the functioning constitution, make sure that law and order is implemented, and even attend the meeting of the Legislative Council in order to push things along.

If Israel is to continue narrowing the breathing room of the Palestinian Authority (half of the Palestinian people say they don’t even feel the Authority’s presence) then Israel will eventually achieve its goal of ridding itself of the Authority. That is the Israeli government’s first strategic objective on the road to strategic objective number two: removing the practical possibility of an independent and viable Palestinian state through intensive and illegal settlement expansion in the occupied territories. Israel instead wants a kind of Palestinian services administration to continue under an arbitrary Israeli security regime: i.e. autonomy forever.

But Palestinians will not tolerate for much longer the contradictions inherent in this continuing state of affairs. What we are seeing at work today in the Palestinian political sphere is resistance to accepting this miserable status quo. I think that we might be heading towards a crossroads, whereby this enforced disintegration will either be reversed by international peace efforts, or we will see an end to the Palestinian Authority. In any case, there is no way that the Palestinian public will allow its leadership to become a cover for the occupation.