The current Palestinian leadership does not appear ready for sudden independence. Despite the push for Palestinian statehood, there remains weaknesses in the Palestinian political establishment that undermine this quest. Political and social fragmentation, a lack of representative leadership and an inability to apply the rule of law seem to indicate that if Palestine were to become an independent state tomorrow, it would falter.
The Israeli occupation has been and remains the primary obstacle hindering Palestinian political and developmental ambitions. Ending the Israeli occupation is clearly requisite to establishing a free and democratic Palestinian state, however, the level of readiness for independence does not depend solely on removing the occupation’s structural obstacles. There are several internal developments that must be addressed as well. The current social and political environments are volatile and unsuitable as a framework for independent governance. The current state of readiness is so poor that emancipation could prove worse than the occupation itself. The experiences of both Libya and Syria prove that successful self-governance movements require strong institutions that can facilitate difficult political transitions. The Palestinian leadership must address these internal weaknesses to provide for a smooth transition.
The current leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which is led by Fatah, has been leading the P.L.O. since its establishment in 1965. Political Islamist movements (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) emerged in the late 1980s and have been able to gain considerable strength within the Palestinian political framework—between 30 percent and 40 percent according to the most credible polls—but remain outside the P.L.O. Yet, there are smaller factions that are part of the P.L.O with far fewer members than Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and a minor presence on the ground. This fragmented political scene creates two issues for independence. First, the current leadership cannot claim it represents the whole, or even a majority, of the Palestinian people. Second, non-P.L.O. factions may undermine or retaliate against any political agreement that P.L.O. tries to reach with Israel. Readiness for independence requires political consensus and legitimate representation.
Physical and political divisions are driving a lack of readiness across the would-be Palestinian state. Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been ruled by Hamas, despite Gaza’s would-be integration with a new Palestine. This is especially problematic given that the West Bank is ruled by the P.A. These two political entities are in direct competition and spend tremendous amounts of energy criticizing each other, rather than working toward reciprocity and political development. The third part of the would-be Palestinian state, East Jerusalem, was fully annexed by Israel. The P.A. has no formal presence, and no influence in East Jerusalem, complicating matters further. Israel has implemented separate occupational measures in all three areas. Gaza is currently under siege, while East Jerusalem and 62 percent of the West Bank are under slightly less restrictive Israeli control. Massive differences in standard of living, political efficacy, and social involvement across the three areas would prohibit any political establishment from forming a homogenous society. The P.A. has declared that any final agreement with Israel will be subjected to referendum by all Palestinian people. Needless to say, it is not possible to hold such a referendum in Gaza while it is controlled by Hamas, or Jerusalem which is under Israel control. The P.A. needs to restore its sovereignty in Gaza and gain the approval of Israel to hold a referendum.
Since the establishment of the P.A. in 1995, parliamentary and presidential elections have been carried out twice—once in 1996 and again in 2006. According to Palestinian law, the election should be carried out every 4 years. Thus, the mandate of the current leadership expired in 2010. The current Palestinian Legislative Council was put on hold in 2007, after Hamas took over Gaza. It is unimaginable that the current P.L.C. would validate any agreement between the P.A. and Israel, as it is dominated by Hamas. New parliamentary and presidential elections are a necessary component of readiness for independence.
The primary challenge faced by the P.A. has been to control armed groups and prevent them from acting independently. President Yasser Arafat succeeded in integrating the military wing of Fatah under the National Army of the Palestinian Authority. But, he was unable to integrate the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. The P.A. has been implementing strategies to enhance the rule of law by banning all military groups in the West Bank, perhaps as a reaction to what happened in Gaza in 2007—when Hamas’s armed wing took over Gaza.
Maintaining a monopoly on the use of force has been a continuing issue in Gaza. The P.A.’s success in this respect has always been a source of pride. However, stability and the rule of law has been jeopardized several times over the past few years. This has cast doubts about the long-term ability of the P.A. to act as a provider for security and justice. In February 2016, the governor of Jenin was assassinated by an unknown military group. In June 2016, the car of the ministry of social affairs was forcibly taken by other armed groups. Several similar incidents have occurred, which add doubts over the P.A.’s ability to control non-state military groups.
In conclusion, the P.A. needs to address a variety of political and social issues before a successful transition from occupation to independent Palestinian self-governance is possible. The P.A. must find ways to unify a dysfunctional political system, reconcile with Hamas, restore its sovereignty over Gaza, and gain control over armed groups, all the while handling the damaging impacts of Israel’s occupation. It must implement a formal and credible elections process to verify and refresh its legitimacy. Self-governance must be rooted in a functional and well-coordinated political establishment with fundamentally sound institutions. Unless these issues are effectively treated, an immediate transition may do more harm than good.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.