Collapse of the Palestinian Authority?

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Is the Palestinian Authority (PA) going to collapse?  If not the PA, then is Fatah imploding?

No one can say for sure, but the succession of events over the past several months brings these questions to mind; questions which could drastically reshape the struggle for Palestine as we know it.

The current change in the winds began as early as this past August over the shady organizing of Fatah’s first party congress in some twenty years.  Then, in October, Abbas and the PA withdrew their support for the Goldstone report, which documented Israeli war crimes during its assault on Gaza last winter.  This betrayal by Abbas & co enraged Palestinians, Arab folks and Palestine solidarity organizers alike.

More recently, Abbas has announced he will retire, and Israeli liberals and US negotiators are running around frantic because Abbas is their only hope of continuing the sordid peace process without having to deal with Hamas.  Shortly afterwards, Abbas began supporting a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state that would forgo the peace process and negotiations with Israel.  While many have applauded this declaration as the long-awaited arrival of Palestinian liberation, in reality it would, under the current conditions, enshrine Israeli apartheid and the shattered social and political lives of Palestinians.

These fractures and desperate measures by Abbas & co have come in response to the US and Israel’s refusal to compromise during negotiations, which would have provided legitimacy for Palestinian rulers.

Since the first Intifada, Fatah has consistently compromised with Israeli apartheid and US Empire, while popular movements in Palestine have repeatedly rejected that compromise.  Gains have only been made by popular self-activity on the part of everyday Palestinians.  This dynamic lies at the heart of the crisis.  The truth today is that Fatah no longer has any social base.  These latest maneuvers by Abbas and Fatah, which treat notions of independence merely as a bargaining chip or a bureaucratic maneuver, should be interpreted in this light.

These articles help contextualize these events:

“Where is Fatah Headed?”
Here’s an article by Toufic Haddad just before the party congress this past August, which traces the increasingly authoritarian character of Fatah both internally, and in relation to the struggle for Palestine.

“Bantustans and the unilateral declaration of statehood”
This is an excellent essay by Virginia Tilley on the pitfalls and consequences of the recent “threats” to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.

“White House Pivots on Mideast Bid”
and “Short-Term Fixes Sought in Mideast”
And for what it’s worth, the NYTimes on how the lack of direction by US Empire contributed to these latest gambits by Abbas and the PA.

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7 thoughts on “Collapse of the Palestinian Authority?”

  1. “Since the first Intifada, Fatah has consistently compromised with Israeli apartheid and US Empire, while popular movements in Palestine have repeatedly rejected that compromise. Gains have only been made by popular self-activity on the part of everyday Palestinians. This dynamic lies at the heart of the crisis. The truth today is that Fatah no longer has any social base.”

    You are getting at some deeper issues here:

    Is it true Fatah has lost its social base? Or is there a generational and class struggle occurring inside?

    Also, you hint that there is a deeper dynamic, one that goes back to the first intifada and was seemingly renewed during the second intifada. How can we get more into this dynamic?

    Sticking with the deeper dynamic theme, to what extent is this reflective of a larger “collapse” of the Palestinian national program and not simply the comprador elites housed in the “bantustan” government of the Palestinian Authority?

    What about Hamas in this situation? How does it fit into this deeper dynamic you mention? Thinking more broadly, what about Islamic politics?

  2. “Is it true Fatah has lost its social base? Or is there a generational and class struggle occurring inside?”

    to be honest, i’m not entirely sure. what does class struggle entail that the loss of a social base does not? are they mutually exclusive? there are a few contours that might help us think through this.

    Fatah has become increasingly authoritarian both inside the party, and in its relationship to the rest of Palestinian society. for other different layers of movement — including factions within Fatah — this has included the loss of an ability to fight against Israeli occupation and apartheid in any meaningful way.

    something everyone is pointing out is that Abu Mazen is not the same contradictory historical figure that Arafat was. despite Arafat’s ruling class proclivities, his legacy is still popularly accepted to contain a liberatory streak. this does not seem to be the case for Abu Mazen. many seem to think that Abbas and his crew are just sellouts. this in my head points to the loss of a social base.

    but the contradiction here is that despite these attitudes toward Abbas, many Palestinians will turn out to honor the legacy and commemorate the death of Arafat — as they just recently did — which Fatah stakes a claim to.

    Hamas’s success in the 2006 PA elections also point to this loss of social base.

    something else to consider is that thousands are only able to make a living through their employment with the PA. but this relationship doesn’t seem take the form of a traditional waged relationship between worker and boss. it seems to be closer to rentierism. either way, this in some way, provides for a continued association between Fatah & the PA, on the one hand, and other Palestinians who may want to fight against Israel on the other.

    the relationship between Fatah, other layers of the movement, and the PA may be one of the linchpins for understanding this. considering its role in the PA, can Fatah be transformed from within?

    this was one of the key strategic questions of the 2nd Intifada. Tantheem was an armed section of Fatah that saw the limitations of the Peace Process and opted for confrontation with the state of Israel. to my knowledge Tantheem never made a clean ideological and organizational break from Fatah, even if they had done so in practice. in response, the Fatah leadership treated Tantheem as a bargaining chip to leverage against Fatah. this was a boon for the PA, but a serious problem for the Intifada.

    in my head the PA needs to be smashed, transcended or made irrelevant. i’m not sure that can happen without some sort of confrontation with and against the PA. and considering Fatah’s primary role in the PA it’s not clear to me if this can be done from within the party.

    but the question still stands: is that happening today?

    what do you think, mlove?

  3. There are numerous important questions being asked here. I have a few more of my own, but I will try to address some of those posed by mlove and ibn jubayr.

    I do think that Fatah’s loss of a social base is wrapped up in generational and class struggles. We see this in the formation of popular councils in numerous small West Bank villages. They are the few organizational forms that are still carrying on the legacy of resistance inherited from the 1st and 2nd Intifadas. These committees are strongest in villages farther away from urban centers, compounding the class differences- the men (and some women) who animate them are usually farmers on ancestral lands who are fighting to keep Israeli settlements and the apartheid wall from encroaching the villages’ farm land. I think the class dynamic can be seen mostly clearly in contrast with the PA’s fat pockets, tucked away in offices in Ramallah or outside of Palestine.

    The other major center of resistance are the few circles of armed resistance left in Palestine, most notably in Nablus, as well as Jenin, Qalqilia, and Hebron- in other words, densely populated areas but most isolated from the centers of PA governance in Ramallah and Bethlehem because of Israeli checkpoints, etc. My info on the state of armed resistance in the West Bank is a few years old at this point, but a few of the most distinct characterizations in the past have been 1) the generational character of these formations, with young men joining them who have been disillusioned with the “peace process” and who are also distanced from the popular resistances of the first Intifada and their legacy in the village popular committees and 2) the armed resistance is usually found most strongly in the camps in these areas, an obvious class marker in contrast with the centers of the PAs control, as well.

    It is not clear to me what the relationship between these centers of resistance and the PA/Fatah are, exactly. Besides Fatah obviously selling them out, as in the case of PA police cracking down on protests in the West Bank in January against the siege on Gaza. Such a thing was unheard of before that moment. The Israeli military must have been completely tied up in Gaza and forced the PA’s hand in their role of policing Palestinian people. In terms of armed resistance, as ibn jubayr mentioned, the PA has cut its armed wing off and yet is still letting it dangle enticingly in front of the Israelis and Americans.

    These divisions within society in the West Bank, along with the authoritarianism and corruption of the PA/Fatah, has led to the loss of its shine as the party of the popular resistance and Arafat’s heyday.

    My questions are: How will Hamas react/orient to Fatah now? If Fatah continues to lose its grasp on the PA, is there room for Hamas to take on the mantle of the PA? Will they want to in light of the aftermath of them winning the Jan 2006 elections?

    How will various forces in the West Bank as well as among Palestine solidarity activist respond to the PA unilaterally declaring statehood? The Tilley article discusses this in important ways. Tilley’s point about the comparisons with south africa not being an academic exercise is an important one. she gets at the heart of the comparison by pointing out how a unilateral declaration of statehood serves to prop up white supremacy and comes at a time when more and more solidarity groups, political commentators, academics, and even diehard two state solution proponents are acknowledging that the two state solution is dead. rather than pushing farther in this direction, fatah is acquiescing to the hopes of a dead movement, much too little, far too late.

    finally, i am not clear on exactly how obama’s vacillation led to Fatah’s current positioning. Obama’s indecision is becoming pretty characteristic of his policy in the middle east, and i have a hard time believing that Fatah could have been holding out for his administration to actually do something. then again, i have a hard time believing a lot of things fatah has done in the last many years.

  4. Good points.

    So then to return to the question of “collapse of the Palestinian Authority”:

    I suppose “collapse” can mean two things: either the physical removal of the PA and its role as a “bantustan” government since its founding in the early 1990s, or its de-legitimation to the point where it has no ability to play a strategic role in the realization of Palestinian national demands.

    The PA and Fatah are intertwined because the former has become the only base of power for the comprador elites, like Abu Mazen, who got rich during the Oslo years, and whose hold on the executive positions in the PA was completed when they were installed by the U.S. and the apartheid regime. Not only were they now invested in the Oslo-apartheid process because of their business relations but also their control over the aid money that is dispersed through the PA. IJ, you pointed this out in terms of employment and political patronage (i wouldn’t say rentier).

    But to say Abu Mazen, Muhammad Dahlan etc., were “installed” needs to be pulled apart a bit, and this gets to my question about whether the kind of “collapse” we are talking about in terms of the PA is also tied to a wider “collapse” of a Palestinian national “program”–I’m referring to something like the vision in the old PLO charter. Arafat promoted elements like Abu Mazen not only as what he thought was a negotiating strategy with the U.S. and the Israeli regime, but as a way to marginalize grassroots activity we are talking about here. At the same time he could distribute some patronage to this more grassroots resistance (you mentioned and the Tanzim/Al Aqsa Brigades during the 2nd intifada) in the hopes of keeping it enmeshed within and linked to the Fatah hierarchy and the PA.

    These institutional relations reflect the lack of a clearly defined political separation between those forces that launched and sustained resistance to the Oslo apartheid process. The two-state program is obviously the key here since it has become for 20 years now captured and defined within the apartheid “peace process” itself and is the political basis of power for the compradors.

    The question is with such a proliferation of mass resistance, why hasn’t it been able to displace the power of the compradors? I think this political question is central to this problem. The lack of a new national front has allowed the U.S. more room to organize its own “front” in the West Bank and the apartheid regime has continued to do everything it can to prevent it from emerging. Most recently the renewed rumors about the release of Marwan Barghouti fits into this pattern. Knowing Abu Mazen is extremely weak, bringing in a man who has been close to the spirit of the resistance, but still invested in the overall status quo, could really help revitalize the legitimacy of the PA for another cycle.

    My questions about Hamas and, more broadly, the situation of Islamic party politics in the Middle East right now tie into all this. Hamas’ strategic decision to run in the PA elections was a watershed. This gets missed in the analysis of the U.S. coup against Hamas in 2007. Hamas accepted the political framework that is embedded in the structure of the PA. Like the secular radical nationalists, they thought they were using it, but in fact it is using them. Probably more accurately, it had nowhere else to go but to contend for the PA apparatus because it fundamentally accepts the two-state framework, even if it just means the old strategic meaning of it rather than as an end result. Can we look at the contradictions of Hizbullah and its relationship with the Lebanese state, particularly its confessional structure, along similar lines? What about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood?

    Another question in all of this is how anti-apartheid solidarity fits into all this, which is a many- leveled question? There are many contradictory advances on this front worth talking about.

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