With the Peace Process Dead, What Options Are Open for the Palestinians to Create a State?

A regular survey of experts on matters relating to Middle Eastern and North African politics and security.

Nadia Hijab | Board president of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network

The only option for Palestinians to create a sovereign state—or to secure equal rights and justice in a single state of Palestine-Israel—is to build up their sources of power. The two-state solution has so far failed not just because Israel is so powerful, but also because its unlawful settlement project was not effectively challenged by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which have focused on state-building before achieving liberation.

The PLO-PA has secured important legal and diplomatic wins. These include the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on Israel’s separation wall, the non-member state status of Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, which enabled the PLO to join international organizations such as the International Criminal Court, and passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016, which described Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation” of international law. But it has never devised an integrated, consistent, and effective political and diplomatic strategy binding the international community. The PLO-PA also tended to ignore national and international civil society engaged on the issue.

There is another opportunity to act now. A European Court of Justice ruling has just made it law for products from Israeli settlements to be labeled as such in European Union member states. The PLO-PA must get behind a clear plan to ensure that this is carried through, as a first step to saving Palestine.

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EU stance in focus after US decision on Israeli settlements

The recent United States announcement that it no longer believes the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is “inconsistent with international law” provoked an immediate response internationally, including in Brussels.

Within hours of the US statement, European Union senior foreign affairs official Federica Mogherini issued a statement affirming that the EU’s position “is clear and remains unchanged: all [Israeli] settlement activity is illegal under international law and … erodes the viability of the two-state solution.”

“The EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power,” the short statement added.

In a separate development, days before the US announcement, Europe‘s highest court – the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – ruled that produce from Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land must be labelled as such, so consumers can make “informed choices”.

The ruling is likely to “increase pressure for more proactive enforcement” within the EU, according to Martin Konecny, director of European Middle East Project (EuMEP), a think-tank in Brussels.

The juxtaposition of the US policy shift and the European court ruling is representative of increasingly divergent approaches to the settlements in Washington and Brussels.

Indeed, some in Israel made an explicit contrast; Transport Minister Bezalel Smotrich both praised the US announcement and described it as “a worthy response” to the ECJ ruling, adding: “We are advancing international recognition of the settlement project.”

Condemnation and complicity

As the Trump administration has steadily abandoned the framework of a two-state solution, the EU has remained committed to what it sees as the ultimate end goal to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In practical terms, the EU has focused on strong, bilateral ties with Israel, in the form of economic arrangements and treaties, academic research, and “security” cooperation, which has deepened alongside EU criticism of policies such as settlement expansion and home demolitions.

“The EU’s condemnations of Israel’s policy are not enough”, said Aneta Jerska, coordinator of the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP), a platform of 40 European Palestine solidarity organisations.

“The EU is deeply complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights by financing the very same Israeli entities that it criticises,” she told Al Jazeera.

Jerska cited EU funding for Israeli universities with campuses located in occupied territories or those that conduct weapons research, funding for Israeli water firm Mekorot – criticised in United Nations‘s reports for its role in international law violations – and even research programme funding for Israeli arms companies.

Meanwhile, the EU has committed considerable financial resources towards supporting and sustaining the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs some areas of the West Bank and remains dependent on external funding to function.

In a recent interview with Arab News, the EU’s special representative for the Middle East peace process, Susanna Terstal, described the EU as “one of the biggest donors to the Palestinians”, revealing over the past 15 years, the EU and its member states “have spent 10 billion euros ($11bn)”.

“We spend that money for making the two-state solution possible,” Terstal added.

However, despite the unwavering policy goal of a two-state solution, certain EU policies have boosted elements seen as obstacles to such an outcome.

“The EU continues to trade with settlements,” Konecny told Al Jazeera, noting the EU imports 15 times more from illegal settlements “than from the Palestinians in the occupied territories”.

Change at the top

There has been a recent change of personnel at the top in Brussels with Mogherini on her way out, and her successor as EU’s next foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, soon to take the reins.

In comments on November 11 reflecting on her term, Mogherini stuck to familiar talking points – that a two-state solution is still possible and “the only realistic solution that we have at hand”.

Although Borrell has been a vocal critic of Israeli policies in the past, it remains to be seen whether that translates to action when in office.

Meanwhile, political divisions within the EU are also reflected in differences over foreign policy, with the bloc struggling to find a common position on the settlements issue.

For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent years strengthened ties with some ultra-nationalist Eastern European governments, seemingly partly in an attempt to further split the bloc on Israeli issues.

Hungary reportedly blocked an effort to get all 28 EU member states to issue a joint statement condemning the US policy shift on settlements, while the Dutch parliament passed a non-binding motion dissenting from the ECJ ruling on settlement produce labelling, which was subsequently rejected by the Dutch government.

Such actions contrast, however, with Luxembourg‘s call for the EU to recognise a Palestinian state, or the declaration made ahead of a UN Security Council meeting last week by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland that “all settlement activity is illegal under international law”.

Carrots but no sticks

This kind of commitment means some Palestinians see an opportunity. “The European role couldn’t be more vital given the Trump administration’s shredding of international law,” Nadia Hijab, board president of the Al-Shabaka think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“The focus should be on those states likely to be supportive – Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Spain – as well as states that are sensitive to being seen to uphold the law, especially France, which took a stand on labelling that led to the ECJ rule, and Germany,” Hijab said.

But, she added, “the key is for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and PA [Palestinian Authority] to get their act together. If they don’t push, as Israel does, then this will be another golden opportunity wasted.”

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The Systematic Torture of Palestinians in Israeli Detention

Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) has been systematically torturing Palestinians using a variety of techniques.

The international legal regime prohibits torture through customary international law as well as a variety of international and regional treaties. Whilst Israel ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT) in 1991, it has failed to incorporate it into its domestic legislation. Moreover, despite the UN committee’s affirmation to the contrary, Israel claims that CAT does not apply to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This allows Israel to assert that there is no crime of torture in Israel, with it actually permitted in cases of “necessity,” also known as the “ticking bomb,” a security doctrine used by many governments to justify torture and violence in situations considered time sensitive.

Israel has also passed several rulings around the issue of torture that have bolstered and condoned the activities of its security services. For instance, though in 1999 the Israeli Court of Justice issued a ruling to the effect that ISA interrogators were no longer allowed to use physical means in interrogations, the court added a clause that provided a loophole for interrogators, namely that those who use physical pressure will not face criminal responsibility if they are found to have done so in a ticking bomb situation or out of necessity for the state’s defense.

Though Palestinian human rights organizations regularly submit complaints to the Israeli authorities they rarely receive a reply, and when they do it is often to inform them that the case file has been closed due to a lack of evidence.

Israeli law also permits the military to hold a prisoner for up to six months without a charge under a procedure known as administrative detention. It is during the period of initial detention, whether administrative or otherwise, when prisoners are often deprived of contact with lawyers or family members that they are subjected to the most severe forms of interrogations and torture.

Children are not spared the ordeal of imprisonment and torture within the Israeli military system, and are nearly always denied the presence of parental guardianship during interrogations.

Whilst physical torture can leave serious bodily damage, including broken bones and chronic muscle and joint pain, especially as a result of stress positions or being confined to a small space, the psychological damage can be even worse, with such conditions as deep and lasting depression, hallucinations, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts. 

Many mechanisms of torture require the complicity of actors within the Israeli military court system, including medical personnel. This occurs despite the fact that the code of medical ethics as defined by the Declaration of Tokyo and Istanbul Protocol includes the stipulation that doctors must not cooperate with interrogators conducting torture, must not share medical information with torturers, and must actively oppose torture. Doctors in Israel are, for example, complicit in force feeding – another, albeit less common, mechanism of torture used by the Israeli regime.

For Palestinians, torture is just one facet of the structural violence they face at the hands of the Israeli regime, which entraps them in an open-air prison and deprives them of their fundamental rights. It is also one that receives little attention from the international community, usually because the Israeli authorities use arguments of state security bolstered by the “war on terror” narrative.

On May 13, 2016, the UN Committee against Torture recommended more than 50 measures to Israel following a review of its compliance with the Convention against Torture. These are, of course, important recommendations, and Israel should be made to comply with them. Yet in a time when third state actors are generally unwilling to hold Israel to account for violating international law and Palestinian rights, they are not enough. 

Policy Recommendations 

  • Organizations and groups should build cases of individual criminal liability outside of Israel and Palestine for those involved in the torture of Palestinians. Accountability can be extended not only to those who commit the torture but also those that aid, abet, and omit information about it.
  • The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, with all the information and detailed reports that have been presented to it, should launch a formal investigation into violations within the Israeli prison system. 
  • State signatories to the Geneva Conventions and international human rights organizations need to pressure the International Committee of the Red Cross to uphold its mandate to protect Palestinian detainees and open an investigation into all accusations of torture.
  • Palestinian civil society and institutions should continue to support those working to aid victims of torture.

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Social media solidarity for wounded Palestinian journalist

Thousands of social media users have taken part in a campaign to support Palestinian freelance journalist Muath Amarneh, who lost his eye after being wounded while covering a protest in the occupied West Bank last week.

Journalists from across the Arab world launched the campaign of solidarity after Amarneh was hit in the eye, apparently with a rubber bullet fired by Israeli forces who had arrived to quell the demonstrations last Friday in Surif.

As a result of the incident Amarneh lost one eye, posing a significant challenge to his career.

Israel’s border police said it did not target Amarneh at the protest near the city of Hebron and said it had used “nonlethal” means to disperse the crowd.

In a show of support, activists took photos of themselves covering an eye with one hand and posted them on social media, using the hashtags #MuathEye, or #EyeOfTruth.

Social media users from a variety of backgrounds – including teachers, students and youth organisations from dozens of countries across the world, ranging from the US to Malaysia, have joined the online movement.

‘Not an Anomaly’

According to Yara Hawari, a senior policy fellow at the Al-Shabaka think tank, Amarneh’s story is among dozens of similar cases.

“The heavy price that Amarneh paid for being both a Palestinian and a journalist is not an anomaly. Indeed at least 60 Palestinian journalists have been targeted and injured from Israeli bullets this year,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Not to mention the mass targeted maiming of protestors at the Great March of Return in Gaza … Such brutality and violence will continue so long as the international community fails to hold Israel accountable for its violations.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists responded to the incident in an official statement, calling on Israeli officials to start an investigation to “hold the soldiers responsible to account”.

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Distract, deflect, disinform: Israeli politics in spin cycle

On this episode of The Listening Post: Caught in a political tangle, Israeli politicians are demonising Palestinians and using Gaza to score points. Plus, Algeria’s viral stars.

Israel: War as a political weapon

In Israel, war, usually waged on Gaza, can be a means of distraction; a political weapon. And that context is often missing in the news coverage.

Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched air raids on the Gaza Strip, what his government called “a targeted killing” of an Islamic Jihad commander.

However, in political terms, those missiles weren’t even aimed at Islamic Jihad.

The real target was Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s political rival.

Netanyahu is fighting for more than his job. He’s just become the first sitting Israeli prime minister charged with a crime: indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

So Netanyahu could use the distraction and he knows that conflict with Palestinians – military and political – can pay off.

He can also count on those in the media, who tend to shorthand the political context – and go long on the dominant narrative – that Palestinians somehow pose an “existential threat” to Israel.

Lead contributors:
Yara Hawari – Palestine policy fellow, Al Shabaka
Anat Balint – Media scholar
Tareq Baconi – Analyst, International Crisis Group
Edo Konrad – Editor-in-chief, +972 Magazine

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Palestinian anger at US decision over West Bank settlements

Palestinians have condemned a decision by the US to abandon its position that Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank are inconsistent with international law. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it threatened to replace international law with the “law of the jungle,” but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US move, saying it “rights a historical wrong”.

Al-Shabaka Board President Nadia Hijab speaks with BBC World and says that the Trump administration’s policy shift on Israeli settlements puts European countries on the spot to come out with a more forceful position on the occupied Palestinian territories.

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A Question of UN Credibility: Releasing the Settlements Database

Hundreds of Palestinian, regional, and international organizations have called on the previous and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to release the UN database of companies engaged in activities with Israel’s illegal settlements. Though the 2016 Human Rights Council resolution called for the release of the database during the 34th Human Rights Council session in March 2017, the then High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, failed to do so – and the current High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, continues to shirk this responsibility, despite repeated pledges that it will be fulfilled.  

The database, when released, would serve as an important tool to deter business involvement in human rights abuses, grave breaches of international humanitarian law, and internationally recognized crimes, while allowing for increased transparency of businesses profiting from and contributing to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. 

The UN has recently prioritized the protection of human rights and international legal standards within the context of business activities – just not in regard to Palestine. For instance, in August 2019, the report of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar listed several companies, including foreign companies, linked to Myanmar’s military and ongoing human rights violations. The report stemmed from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” framework. The UN database of businesses involved with Israeli settlements, which would be updated annually, would help to enforce these UN guidelines in the context of the Israeli occupation. 

Palestine: Always the Exception

Political pressure from states, notably Israel and the United States, as well as lobby groups, has likely been the cause for the database’s delay. Some states and actors have pushed back. Twenty-seven UN member states, for example, reiterated during the July 2019 Council session that the High Commissioner and her office must “operate and execute their mandates in an independent manner and without interference.” During the same session, 65 member states requested that the High Commissioner urgently fulfill the database mandate in its entirety. 

At the September 2019 Council session, South Africa requested an explanation for the failure of the database’s release, concluding that “it cannot be that the powerful and monied continue to abuse the human rights of Palestinians in the name of profit.” Most recently, in October 2019 Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory Occupied since 1967, Michael Lynk, called on the High Commissioner to release the database “in a fully transparent fashion, with all businesses named.”

The UN has recently prioritized the protection of human rights and international legal standards within the context of business activities – just not in regard to Palestine
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Meanwhile, parliamentarians, including from Belgium, Chile, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK, have called for the database’s release in communications with the High Commissioner and their governments.

If the UN Human Rights Council succumbs to political pressure regarding this mandate, it would likely be a first. Such a failure would imply that human rights are indeed politicized and financialized, and that state and corporate interests override human rights. The decision whether to fulfill the database mandate is an important test for the UN’s supposed universal implementation and enforcement of the international legal framework and human rights standards, while testing the credibility of the Office of the High Commissioner and its bodies. 

Policy Recommendations

  • The international community, particularly UN member states, must actively seek the fulfillment of the database mandate by further encouraging the High Commissioner and her office to release and update it. 
  • Relevant Palestinian political bodies and diplomatic representatives around the world should further prioritize the database and its release. If the database is not released by March 2020, the Palestinian Mission to the UN should, during the upcoming 43rd Human Rights Council session, add an operative clause reaffirming the mandate to publicly release the list of companies and annually update the database.
  • Palestinian and international civil society should consider a grassroots campaign, targeted to the March date, that reaffirms the importance of the database and its release.

For more on the UN database, please see Al-Shabaka Policy Analyst Valentina Azarova’s May 2018 commentary here.

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Digital Censorship in the Palestinian Context

Palestinians are facing mounting digital censorship from all angles – from the Israeli government to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. What are the implications of this growing trend, and what tools exist to fight back?

In this policy lab, analysts Marwa Fatafta and Nadim Nashif join host Nur Arafeh to discuss the threat against Palestinian digital rights and anchor it within the wider global trend of digital repression.


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Restructuring the Palestinian Authority: It’s Now or Never


The Palestinian Authority (PA) has perhaps never been so embattled, polarizing, or internally fragmented. 

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), the PA has cut itself off from Gaza, and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah continues to be elusive. Regionally, the PA has never been as alienated from its Arab allies. New leadership in key states, such as Saudi Arabia, eager to kowtow to the Trump Administration and find common ground with Israel on the issue of Iran, has led to disastrous shifts in Arab policy and discourse on Palestine. The rush to normalize with Israel is on, emboldening the Israeli occupation forces. Increased repression in these normalizing states also means a near systematic state-level campaign of repression aimed at curtailing pro-Palestinian voices. 1 

Internationally, the rise of right-wing fascistic elements in a number of countries has narrowed the opportunities available to the PA to apply pressure on Israel. Moreover, the frequent charge of anti-Semitism, so often a disingenuous red herring, has become a useful tool to silence voices of opposition regarding the Israeli occupation, leading to unprecedented attacks on free speech and freedom of assembly in the US, UK, Germany, and elsewhere. Thus, even though the Israeli occupation is increasingly unpopular amongst the public, “lawfare” strategies have had the effect of chilling activism on Palestine, including sometimes successful attempts at passing anti-BDS legislation

Most important in these current conditions is the further rightward shift of the US in regard to Israel-Palestine, with Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at the reins. Together they have decimated international institutions and allowed Israel to behave with even more impunity than it had enjoyed previously. 

As such assaults on Palestinians intensify, the PA finds itself losing key reservoirs of support. Yet in the face of these myriad challenges, the PA has not sought to repair or strengthen relations with its own people or those who advocate for them. Rather, it has become increasingly authoritarian, to the detriment of Palestinians and their relationship with those claiming to represent them. 

Though the PA may continue to operate and be recognized as the de facto authority in the occupied West Bank despite the local, regional, and international geopolitical transformations described above, as this state of affairs continues it may lose all relevance in the negotiation process and as a representative of the Palestinian people. 

This commentary first discusses the disconnect between the PA and the Palestinian citizens under its control. It then examines how international involvement, in particular increasingly harmful US policy, has helped to shore up this disconnect, as such involvement has rendered the PA progressively repressive and divisive. This has made political activism in the OPT more difficult. 

However, while the PA is at a critical and daunting juncture, this moment can be used to restructure state-society relations between the PA and Palestinians, both in the OPT and the diaspora. Palestinian civil society also has the chance to unify in its fight against both the occupation and the harmful PA leadership. Unless such developments occur, dynamics of stagnation and futile politics will likely continue.

The Political-Societal Disconnect

It is clear that the PA has no coherent strategy at this point, often only reacting in response to changes in Israeli or American policy. The PA’s repeated threats of severing ties and security coordination with Israel have never materialized, with the effect that such threats are no longer given credence or credibility. 

The continuing reign of the “old guard” within Fatah, as opposed to the “new guard” – and the ensuing division in the party – helps ensure this lack of strategy. Although there have always been lines of division within Fatah it had attained a reputation as the one faction with no barriers to entry under Yasser Arafat’s leadership, and was thus considered the more representative and inclusive of the factions, with an attendant impression of an internal unity. This is not to imply that Fatah did not face tensions during critical times, such as during the war of the camps in the 1980s. However, the party had an overall higher level of legitimacy amongst its members and wider Palestinian society. 

Under Mahmoud Abbas, this is no longer the case. PLO institutions have become ever more irrelevant following the international sanctions imposed on the PA after the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power. Fatah’s US-backed attempt to reverse the election results, successful in the West Bank, led to the severing of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a de facto state of emergency in both parts of the OPT. This continues to be the backdrop to Abbas’s long-expired presidential reign, one he seems intent to overstay indefinitely. Attempts by the “new guard” to engage with Fatah institutions and reevaluate leadership, such as through the party’s Sixth and Seventh General Congresses, have failed. 

The divergence between the PA and the Palestinian public is partly due to the role of international involvement
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As a result, Fatah and the PA face a legitimacy crisis amongst Palestinian society. In a recent poll, 80% of Palestinian respondents reported that they believe there is corruption in the PA, and close to 50% feel that the PA is a burden on the Palestinian people. Almost two thirds of those polled want Abbas to resign and are dissatisfied with his performance. 

A divergence is also clear in the opinions and preferences of OPT Palestinians versus the opinions and preferences of their leadership. For example, while the PA took punitive measures against the Hamas regime in Gaza, cutting, for instance, electricity payments and government salaries, 82% of Palestinian respondents supported the removal of such measures. 

In my forthcoming book, Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine, I find further evidence of this divergence. When asked about democracy and accountability, those in the Palestinian leadership are quick to claim that their society is unsuitable for an accountable political system, despite the fact that 81% of Palestinian respondents in a nationally representative survey expressed that democracy and accountability are important. 2 

The Impact of International Intervention 

This divergence between the PA and the Palestinian public is partly due to the role of international involvement, meaning targeted aid as well as forms of diplomatic and material pressures. These interventions incentivize the Palestinian leadership to disregard public opinion, as it is often at odds with the preferences of powerful donors such as the United States. 

International involvement has taken a number of forms. First, in my research PA officials reported that the US imposes conditions on the content and types of training available to PA employees, particularly within the interior ministry, and that the US keeps Palestinian officials with a history of protest, dissenting views toward the US, or resistance against Israel out of these programs. I also found evidence of systematic and targeted use of forced retirements of such resistant figures during the US-supported rise of Salam Fayyad to power. Moreover, PA officials reported that the source of funding frequently did not matter, as US policies were often adopted by other donors. EU countries and others therefore follow suit on most US restrictions. 

International involvement has also shifted elite perception and preferences at the individual level. During interviews with PA bureaucrats, all of them cited international involvement – and the threat of its destabilizing effects – as motivation for their insistence on continued PA policies, including arrests of opposition figures and security coordination with Israel. This was the case even for those in positions without direct contact with US officials and institutions. 

Indeed, Palestinian officials have come to avoid any issues that might pose a threat to US positions and funding. PA bureaucrats often reported how backward and ill-suited Palestinian society is to democratic norms; after all, they would claim, Palestinians elected an Islamist party. These bureaucrats would also repeat talking points about the use of authoritarian practices, namely that they are in the service of “stability” and therefore cannot count as “repression.” Further, PA officials referred to political opponents as “terrorists,” an echo of American counter-terrorism policy and rhetoric following the George W. Bush Administration. 

The PA can either try to restructure its objectives and relationship to Palestinian society, or it can remain stagnant and reactive and stumble into further failure
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In contrast, Palestinian survey respondents who were not connected to the PA through employment were not motivated by international involvement. Specifically, priming survey respondents with information on instances of international intervention did not affect the answers of those unconnected to the PA. It did, however, affect the responses of those who reported employment with the PA or its affiliate institutions. 

Respondents affiliated with the PA, when reminded of international involvement in the Arab world related to so-called democratization efforts, were less likely to report that democracy and accountability were important to them. International involvement – even the type that is supposedly pro-democracy – was equated with hypocrisy and instability by these respondents. Hence, not only is international involvement causing a divergence between Palestinian leadership and the public, but among the public itself. 

A Fragmented Civil Society

Due to the PA’s authoritarian strategies and practices, as well as the deep schism between Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian society today suffers from a lack of viable leadership and an overall sense of disunity. Targeted PA repression of certain civil society groups has led to almost insurmountable grievances among these groups as a whole, and has increased insularity, making groups less likely to work together or achieve a critical mass of support. 

For instance, in my research, leftist activists complained that the PA often targets them for their activities, or attempts to control their agenda and strategies. These groups were subsequently inhibited in their ability to reach out to anyone beyond their immediate circles. To engage in political action, they had to make sure it did not get the attention of authorities. This strategy is intended to circumvent repression, but it also significantly reduces activists’ capacity for large-scale collective action. 

Similarly, amongst popular committees in the villages surveyed, activists complained of PA intrusion and cooptation strategies. For example, in the village of Bil’in, northwest of Ramallah, a committee formed to protest the Separation Wall that took a large portion of the village’s land. The committee brought together villagers regardless of political background, and was intentionally organized outside of the PA’s institutions (such as via the local village council). 

Activists reported that the PA would often send representatives to the Bil’in protests to “legitimize” them, but in exchange it made clear that the protests should only be held in Area B and that the protestors’ demands were confined to specific asks related to the wall. This occurred despite the fact that villagers  repeatedly articulated their refusal of the status quo, including the dynamic of PA-Israeli cooperation. Moreover, the PA worked to incorporate villagers as employees in PA-affiliated organizations, thus shifting the locus of organizing from the village to Ramallah. These PA strategies weakened the movement over time. 

Furthermore, surveys of Birzeit University students of various political affiliations showed that PA repression renders students affiliated with Islamist politics/parties less likely to work with other students on issues of common interest. PA repression particularly polarized students affiliated with Islamist politics/parties and those affiliated with leftist politics/parties. Consequently, these two groups became more entrenched in their ideas and less willing to cooperate across political divides. PA repression does not have the same effect on students affiliated with Fatah, who for obvious reasons do not feel particularly under attack by the government.

PA repression has therefore impacted groups that view themselves as the most targeted or vulnerable. Such repression has a direct effect on these groups’ willingness to work with others across political lines. PA policies and actions have thus effectively limited collective action in the territories overall. 

Documentation of protests from 2007 to 2016 that I gathered further demonstrates that mobilizations occur more often in areas that are not under direct PA control. Although many more Palestinians live in Area A compared to Area B or C, the data shows that protest is inhibited in Area A but on the rise in Area B and Area C in a way that is incommensurate with the population numbers. 

If the PA does not behave as a complicating factor and a hindrance, Palestinian activism is likely to be much more effective
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Some protest movements exemplify this trend, such as those that have emerged in short bursts in places like Jerusalem, where Israel has prohibited any official PA functioning. In these areas, protest is more likely to emerge at critical times, though they are often unsustainable, as they are leaderless and impromptu. In many of these places, and particularly in Jerusalem, the Israeli occupation has effectively destroyed Palestinian institutions that have historically served as vehicles for organizing. As a result, when situations arise that require a Palestinian response, protests spontaneously emerge to meet short-term objectives but cannot continue.  

One example of this trend is the protests that erupted regarding restrictions on the Al-Aqsa compound in July 2017: These were quick to emerge, focused on specific objectives, succeeded to some degree, and quickly dissipated. The possibility of turning such mobilization efforts into longer-lasting campaigns is limited due to Israeli repression. And, in areas where Palestinians have (theoretically) more freedom of movement, the PA has had the effect of chilling collective action altogether.  

What Can Be Done?

Palestinian leadership

So far, the PA has resisted pressure to engage in harmful initiatives such as the Jared Kushner-led “Peace to Prosperity” conference held in Bahrain, or to forego payments to families of martyrs. Yet reactive positions are not enough. The silver lining of the Trump Administration’s complete disregard of international law and past peace process agreements is that the PA has the chance to restructure state-society relations for the first time in many years. US funding has already been cut, and attacks on the PA from the US and its allies have quickly destroyed any kind of bargaining power the PA might have had on the international stage. As such, in terms of the negotiation process, the Palestinian leadership has nothing to lose. 

Instead of merely reacting, the PA can use this opportunity to reorient its objectives and rebuild ties with Palestinian society. This means bringing to the table Palestinian political parties that were sidelined as a result of American and Israeli involvement, including Islamist groups. Fatah and Hamas must take reconciliation efforts seriously. This also means utilizing the PLO as an institution, and revitalizing it once again so as to activate parts of the Palestinian diaspora that have remained neglected. 

The PLO was effectively hollowed out as an institution and liberation movement as a result of the Oslo Accords, and has been superseded by the state-building project of the PA. But to create more space for Palestinian leadership and to harness parts of Palestinian society that are not just in the West Bank, it is imperative that the PLO is revitalized in a meaningful way. The last Palestinian National Council (PNC) appointments and meeting, by all accounts, did not achieve this objective. A call for meaningful elections – and not just of the PNC – could therefore be a good place to start, as well as the incorporation of Islamist parties into the PLO. This must include the Palestinian Legislative Council and the office of the president. 

The PA leadership can do all this without fearing consequences from the US – after all, Trump has already ceded Jerusalem to the Israelis, and his administration has implicitly approved the idea of outright annexation of the West Bank. It truly is a now or never moment: The PA can either try to restructure its objectives and relationship to Palestinian society, and as such regain its relevance, or it can remain stagnant and reactive and stumble into further failure. 

Palestinian civil society

Concurrently, Palestinian civil society needs to understand the impact of 25 years of the PA, particularly the repercussions of targeted repression and increased grievances among groups. Understanding this dynamic is the first step to combating its effects. Palestinian activists can begin to rebuild ties with each other and across political divides, and recognize that the polarization that now exists can be resolved. Taking lessons from research on mobilization, as well as their own experiences of mobilization, can help to mount effective challenges to the Israeli occupation. 

This means developing new vehicles for collective action that are representative of the various political movements that exist in Palestinian society, without exclusions. For example, BDS has served as a useful model because it incorporates Palestinians regardless of political belief and unites them over shared objectives. 

Similarly, the protest movements that have emerged in villages, such as in Bil’in, have incorporated Palestinians of different political affiliations over shared goals. In some places, popular committees are being revived for this purpose. Of course, the challenges of organizing under occupation should not be underestimated, especially as Israeli repression fiercely attempts to subdue any possible challenge. 

However, Palestinian civil society has found creative ways to organize in the past, using professional organizations, neighborhood popular committees, and more. If the PA does not behave as a complicating factor and a hindrance, such as in the cases of village mobilization highlighted above, Palestinian activism is likely to be much more effective. 

The atomization of Palestinian civil society must end in order for the Palestinian people to effectively challenge the status quo. With a more unified front, not only will Palestinians be more capable of challenging the occupation, they will also demand greater accountability from their leaders. 


  1. Pro-Palestinian activists have reportedly been arrested in Saudi Arabia, including Mohammad Al-Rabieh and Abdulaziz Al-Odeh. Activists in other Gulf states also report more limited space to conduct their activities, according to interviews I conducted.
  2. I conducted this poll in 2016 in conjunction with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. See my forthcoming book for more details.

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Israel is turning Palestinian students into criminals

Earlier this month, Mais Abu Ghosh, a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, sent a letter to her family from Damon Prison in northern Israel.

“I love you so much,” Abu Ghosh wrote. “I am fine as long as you and those whom I love are fine […] You are in my mind and my spirit.” She asked her family to send greetings to her university friends and to her professors, “with no exceptions.” She added: “I am with another family now. All difficulties will pass.”

Israeli forces arrested Abu Ghosh in late August. She is one of dozens of Palestinian students who have been detained over the past three months, in a heightened crackdown on students across the occupied West Bank.

According to data collected by Right to Education, a grassroots campaign aimed at defending education in Palestine, Israeli forces have detained at least 64 university students since the start of this year. Eighteen of the detainees are students at Birzeit — the second-largest university in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli authorities routinely arrest politically active Palestinian students, but rights groups say the numbers have increased with the current crackdown.

Escalation in arrests

A spokesperson at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights organization, told +972 that Israel has been targeting an increasing number of Palestinian students since the start of 2019. There are currently 260 Palestinian high school and university students in Israeli prisons.

Of the 18 Birzeit students who were arrested in August, Israel has released only three. All of them were taken from their homes during overnight army raids, with Israeli soldiers using “excessive force” in the course of making the arrests, according to Addameer.

Most of the detained Birzeit students are still under interrogation, which could last up to 75 days or be extended to another 90 days. Three of the students have been placed under administrative detention – a policy inherited from the British Mandate, by which Israel holds detainees indefinitely, without charge. It is used almost exclusively against Palestinians.

Addameer has expressed “serious concern for the well-being and health” of the student detainees, noting that many have been prohibited from seeing lawyers and have been subjected to “torture and ill-treatment.”

According to Right to Education, 80 Birzeit students are currently imprisoned by Israel, including 17 who are under administrative detention.

Last month, an Israeli military court imposed a gag order on the cases of several Palestinian student detainees who are undergoing interrogations. The gag order is expected to be lifted on Nov. 10.

Addameer said the gag order was a violation of the “basic rights of the prisoner, their family and their lawyer” and an “attempt to cover up grave human rights violations” inflicted on Palestinian prisoners during interrogations.

An Israeli army spokesperson told +972 that the students recently arrested at Birzeit are “suspected of involvement in terror attacks that occurred over the last few months in which Israeli citizens were murdered.” The spokesperson added that they could not provide further information while the cases were being investigated by the Shin Bet — Israel’s internal security agency.

The army spokesperson is most likely referring to an attack that occurred in August, when a 17 year-old Israeli girl named Rina Shnerb was killed by an improvised explosive near Dolev, a settlement located northeast of Ramallah.

Samer Arbeed, 44, has been accused of heading a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) cell that allegedly carried out the attack. He was hospitalized in critical condition last month, with broken ribs and kidney failure after torture and severe beatings before and during interrogations carried out by the Shin Bet at the Russian Compound in Jerusalem.

At Hadassah Hospital, Arbeed slipped into a coma and was put on a respirator. Israeli media reported that the Shin Bet had been given legal permission to use “extraordinary measures” during Arbeed’s interrogation.

In a report released last year, Addameer documented Israeli authorities’ systematic use of torture at the Russian Compound, which Palestinians refer to as al-Mascobiyya. Among the types of torture: placing the detainee in solitary confinement and exposing them to sounds of torture from neighboring cells. The cells, according to the report, do not “meet the minimum standards of adequate human living.”

‘Continuous and systematic attacks’

“Palestinian students have faced continuous and systematic attacks” by the Israeli army – particularly at Birzeit, said Yara Hawari, a fellow at the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. A student who is politically active will, she said, “inevitably” have “some kind of encounter with Israeli occupation forces.”

Birzeit has served as a center for Palestinian political, cultural and academic life in the West Bank for decades. Its graduates include prominent Palestinian figures such as Marwan Barghouti, now serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail.

Since the 1970s, the university has been subject to numerous Israeli army closures, the longest of which lasted for nearly five years, from 1988-82, during the first Palestinian intifada. Students and teachers resisted the closures, holding classes in their homes or outside the closed gates of the university.

“That legacy means that Birzeit has remained a very politically active space,” Hawari said. “It’s a hub of student organizing.”

According to Tahseen Elayyan, who heads the monitoring and documentation department at the Palestinian human rights NGO al-Haq, Birzeit students represent the entire Palestinian political spectrum – both within and outside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The Palestinian Authority has not held a general election since 2005, which means that residents of the West Bank and Gaza have been prevented from expressing their political views through the democratic process. Student elections at Birzeit have served as an important barometer for the political zeitgeist.

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