Is the Palestinian Authority still relevant?

Analysis: The PA struggles to stay relevant amid regional and international efforts to secure Gaza ceasefire.

Despite a unity agreement, the PA has had little leverage over the internal decisions of Hamas [Reuters]

Stripped of economic, political, territorial and security authority, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lost favour with Israel after the signing of a national consensus agreement with Hamas last April.

Abbas also has to contend with mounting calls to redraw the Palestinian government’s national liberation strategy along more popular lines. His administration faced unprecedented criticism over the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) full cooperation with Israel during its brutal crackdown in the West Bank last month.  

The Palestinian unity pact saw Hamas ceding power to a government viewed as being loyal to its political rival, Fatah. On the ground however, the Ramallah based PA, which has denounced Hamas for firing rockets, has as little leverage as ever over the movement’s internal decision-making process. 

Khaled el-Gindy, former adviser to the Palestinian Leadership in Ramallah, says that Hamas and Fatah may be forced to cooperate on implementing some terms of a future truce, but at this moment, the PA has no role in dealing with the ongoing crisis.”It’s completely irrelevant. It cannot influence the United States, it cannot influence Israel, it cannot influence Hamas, it cannot influence Egypt,” he stated.

It's completely irrelevant. It cannot influence the US, it cannot influence Israel, it cannot influence Hamas, it cannot influence Egypt

by - Khaled el-Gindy, former Palestinian Authority adviser

Egypt’s ceasefire agreement was based on suggestions put forward by Abbas, but the PA was only minimally involved in formulating the proposal, which Israeli sources revealed was drafted by Egyptian intelligence and foreign ministry officials alongside Israeli defence officials.

Abbas was slammed for his endorsement of the Egyptian initiative, which fails to offer substantial resolutions to Gaza’s problems or guarantee that Israel would commit to talks once the fighting ends.

Echoing a stream of condemnations credited to Hamas officials, Ihab al-Ghusein, the de facto head of the government’s media department in Gaza, accused Abbas of towing Israel’s line.

“Abbas did not take our position into consideration, and adopted the Egyptian proposal which disregards our demands, providing Israel with the calm and ceasefire it seeks, and condemning the resistance as terrorist”, he said.

The Hamas leadership abroad received Abbas’ criticism more diplomatically, and Khaled Mishaal chose to meet with the Fatah leader in Qatar on Monday, despite the reservations expressed by some of the senior members of the movement.

Efforts to cement a truce are ongoing, but a breakthrough remains elusive. Hamas and Israel are locked in a battle of wills, and Egypt is standing firm in its refusal to open the Rafah border, one of the key Hamas demands.

A PA role in implementing some of the terms of the truce put forward by Hamas may make it more palatable to all parties involved. Abbas proposed opening Rafah under PA supervision, a move that neither Egypt nor Israel oppose, and that would allow Hamas to compromise on some of the other terms while emerging from the conflict with some political gains.

A security presence in Gaza, that is sanctioned by both Hamas and Israel, will help the PA prop up its precarious rule. Abbas is eager to smooth things over with Israel, and reportedly promoted adding measures to restart negotiations in the ceasefire agreement. 

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The Palestinian president had previously threatened that if the negotiations fell apart, he would either dissolve the PA or seek membership for Palestine in 63 international bodies and charters, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) that would allow Palestine to take Israeli officials to trial for war crimes.

It is possible that Abbas was issuing empty threats, as either option would spell suicide for the Ramallah regime. Either way, the limited return to Gaza of the US-trained PA forces would signal to the Israelis that the PA is ready to assume some measure of responsibility over the besieged enclave and re-establish trust towards resuming talks.

At the same time, mending ties with Hamas following weeks of tension comes with its own challenges. The unity government will be expected to take material steps towards general elections and Abbas will be pressured to call for a meeting of the PLO provisional leadership framework.

Hamas has eagerly awaited this move as a step towards obtaining full membership in the PLO, internationally recognised as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.To the annoyance of Hamas, Abbas had been stalling on both the aforementioned provisions, wary of offering the Islamist movement a lifeline back into political life following its handover of power in June.

The Hamas position is strengthened by the near unanimous agreement among Palestinian factions on the need for the PA to incorporate alternative solutions to the Palestine-Israel impasse according to Khaledah Jarrar, member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). 

“We must begin a political revision of our leaderships’ choices,” Jarrar stated. A number of national groups have urged convening a PLO provisional leadership meeting, in a statement demanding that the president conclusively end peace negotiations and adopt the demands of Hamas.

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Jarrar predicts that there will be renewed pressure on the PA to embrace policies that are aimed at ending the US-Israeli monopoly over Palestinian efforts to pursue national legitimacy, beginning with a decision to go to the ICC. “What is going on in Gaza and the rest of Palestine will force a new equation,” she went on to say.

Gindy believes that a conversation in which Palestinians agree on a unified strategy is necessary to redefine the Palestinian national movement, and questions the effectiveness of groups focusing exclusively on either armed struggle or diplomacy.

The initiatives that exist on the ground, he suggested, lack the ability to produce results, as a broad consensus on how to move forward remains out of reach. “Some groups are engaged in diplomacy, some are engaged in armed struggle, some are protesting peacefully”, he said, “I see all sides continuing to do what they have done, playing to their perceived strength.”

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has sparked renewed debate over the apparent reluctance of Abbas to seek ICC jurisdiction following Israeli threats of retaliation.  

“We are capable of holding the occupation accountable for its actions. Why aren’t we taking advantage of Palestine’s UN membership?”  Ghusein said.

Israel and the US insist that going to the ICC would undermine peace talks.  But observers and human rights groups argue that the court provides an avenue to end the lack of accountability for serious crimes, such as indiscriminate attacks on civilians and settlement expansion.  “More research is needed to properly assess our responsibilities and that of the other side.” Ibrahim Khraishi, Palestine’s UN envoy told Aljazeera.

“It must be clear that both sides face allegations of war crimes, but we said that we would be ready to carry our responsibilities. Palestine first lodged a declaration to join the ICC in 2009. Now that Palestine is an observer state, some people have reservations, but the mechanism to join is in place,” he added.

Khraishi goes on to note that a ceasefire must be reached before discussions on joining international bodies can be held. “Israel does not want to negotiate or commit to international law. The international community must take responsibility to force Israel to respect the Geneva Convention and protect civilians,” he argued. 

US secretary of state John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Boon both made trips to the region over the past days, but diplomatic efforts have failed to end the bloodshed, as the death toll increases at accelerating rates in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “No international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power” when the UN questioned the legality of Israeli air strikes under international law. The Security Council calls for a ceasefire have gone unheeded amid alarming violence perpetrated against civilians in Gaza.

Without a clear strategy towards seeking international accountability for Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank, the PA risks further alienating Palestinian political actors and members of the public to its own detriment.

On Wednesday the PLO endorsed Hamas demands of halting hostilities and lifting the blockade, a move translated as a closing of ranks following the forceful dispersion of protests supporting Gaza in Hebron, Jenin, Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank over the past two weeks. 

But the real test for Abbas, Jarrar indicated, is how he plans to manage Palestinian-Israeli relations when a ceasefire agreement is reached and the dust settles.

“Continuation of security coordination, lack of response to the call for a unified leadership under the PLO, lack of a strategy with regards to negotiations and the ICC situation, these are all circumstances dictated by Israel, these are all issues that the president must reckon with once the conflict is over.” 

Source: Al Jazeera