Israel’s now year-long violent crackdown on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has taken a heavy toll. Some 190 Palestinians were killed in 2022, making it the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005. The violence has surged considerably since the new, far-right Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the most extreme in Israel’s history, took power in late December. As a result, 2023 is on pace to be one of the bloodiest years for Palestinians in the occupied territories in recent memory. Around 80 Palestinians, both militants and unarmed civilians, have been killed just since the start of the year, with no end in sight.
In addition to the terrible human and material toll, among the many casualties of the ongoing Israeli offensive in the West Bank is Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership, which has neither the ability to protect Palestinians in the short term nor a strategy for ending Israeli occupation in long term, even as it struggles to remain relevant both politically and practically on the ground. Without outside intervention, Israel’s violent military crackdown in the West Bank is likely to fuel more violence while further undercutting Abbas’s already embattled leadership and whatever may be left of the PA’s domestic credibility.
Abbas’s PA has been in steady decline for years and is, in many ways, already in a state of slow-motion collapse. Years of political and institutional stagnation, thanks in large part to the debilitating 15-year split with Hamas, along with the PA’s increasing corruption and authoritarianism and the growing perception that the current Palestinian leadership lacks a strategic vision for Palestinian liberation, have severely eroded the PA’s domestic legitimacy. Abbas in particular remains intensely unpopular, with more than three-quarters of Palestinians saying they want him to resign. Meanwhile, the leadership’s chronic financial woes, including a staggering 75% drop in international donor aid since 2013 combined with Israel’s confiscation of $2 billion in tax transfers since 2019, have put the PA on the brink of bankruptcy. At the same time, the PA’s physical presence on the ground is shrinking as well, most notably in the northern West Bank towns of Nablus and Jenin, where PA security forces have largely ceded control to new armed militant groups intent on carrying out attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Israel’s escalation in the West Bank has further undercut Abbas and the PA’s already precarious domestic standing. Indeed, according to a new poll, for the first time ever a majority of Palestinians now support the dissolution of the PA. The belief that the PA no longer serves the interests of the Palestinian people is directly related to its growing perception as Israel’s “security sub-contractor.” Following the Jan. 26 Israeli army raid on Jenin refugee camp that killed 10 people, therefore, Abbas had little choice but to publicly suspend security coordination with Israel, which while central to the PA’s own survival is intensely unpopular among Palestinians and widely seen as a form of collaboration with the occupation; even so, Abbas was quick to reassure U.S. officials that the PA would continue to thwart attacks on Israelis. Meanwhile, as Israeli violence and the Palestinian death toll continue to mount, the popularity of armed groups like the Lions’ Den and Jenin Brigades has surged, even as the PA’s own popularity continues to plummet.
An increasingly insecure Abbas has responded to these challenges in the only ways he knows how — by seeking refuge from outside powers while cracking down on the growing dissent at home, neither of which is likely to offer much relief. Abbas’s first stop was at the United Nations in mid-February, where he sought a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements and other unilateral actions. A week later, however, he agreed to drop the measure in return for an Israeli commitment to boost the PA’s finances by hundreds of millions of shekels per month, sparking renewed outrage from Palestinian activists and opposition groups. Then came Israel’s deadly assault in Nablus on Feb. 22, killing 11 Palestinians, the highest death toll in a single day since the Israeli crackdown began a year ago. The timing of the Israeli raid on the heels of Abbas’s decision to withdraw the U.N. resolution left Abbas badly burned.
Even as he condemned the “Nablus massacre” and threatened to go back to the Security Council, Abbas pivoted toward a more familiar tack, accepting an invitation to attend a U.S./Jordanian-sponsored emergency summit in the Red Sea resort town of Aqaba, where Palestinian and Israeli leaders, with the support of U.S., Jordanian, and Egyptian diplomats, met on Feb. 26 to hammer out a plan to de-escalate the violence. At Aqaba, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to take mutual steps toward “de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence,” including an Israeli commitment to uphold past agreements, temporarily halt settlements, and respect the Status Quo in Jerusalem.
This, coming from a far-right Israeli government, seemed like a major breakthrough. But in reality, the Aqaba communiqué was a dead letter. No sooner had the statement been released than key ministers in the Israeli government disavowed it, while both Netanyahu and his chief of staff distanced themselves from its contents.
Moreover, the document was quickly overtaken by events on the ground. Following the killing of two Israeli settlers by a Palestinian gunman in the northern West Bank village of Hawara that same day, hundreds of radical settlers rampaged through the village, torching dozens of homes, shops, and cars and killing one Palestinian, while Israeli soldiers reportedly stood by. Following the Hawara “pogrom,” as one Israeli general described it, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the radical Religious Zionist Party further fanned the flames by declaring that Hawara “needs to be wiped off the earth.” The Biden administration condemned Smotrich’s incitement as “repugnant” and “disgusting” but nonetheless granted him a diplomatic visa to visit Washington this week. Even so, the Biden administration continues to send mixed signals, calling for immediate steps to end the violence on one hand while lending blanket support to Israel’s military campaign in the occupied West Bank as part of its “right to defend its people and its territory against all forms of aggression” on the other.
As Abbas continues to bet on the trappings of an otherwise nonexistent peace process, growing local anger toward his leadership has fueled the Palestinian leader’s paranoia and authoritarian tendencies. As a result, PA security forces have stepped up their crackdown on dissent, attacking funeral processions of Palestinians killed by Israel and shutting down civil society initiatives, such as the “14 Million” conference, which had planned to issue a public statement calling for canceling the Oslo agreements and holding general elections.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank shows no signs of letting up. Washington is urging the Palestinian leader to attend a follow-up summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh scheduled for later this week. In the absence of Israeli will to embark on genuine de-escalation as well as any meaningful U.S. or international pressure to do so, however, the gathering is likely to meet the same fate as Aqaba. The fact that the Biden administration is behind the Aqaba and Sharm gatherings is a welcome departure from its normal pattern of passivity over the past two years, although summits and statements alone are not enough to change trends on ground. This will require concerted international pressure, especially from the U.S., on Israel to end its violent campaign. Short of such an approach, which given the administration’s record thus far seems highly unlikely, both the violence and the PA’s demise are likely to continue.
Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the director of its Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs.
Photo by JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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