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Biden thinks the PA can govern Gaza; the Palestinians think he’s dreaming

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 20 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Palestinian analysts say Hamas will need to be involved in any postwar negotiations.

The US and European Union envision a key role for the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas in running Gaza after Israel’s military campaign to destroy Hamas’s rule in the coastal strip winds down.

US President Joe Biden reiterated this goal emphatically over the weekend: “Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalised Palestinian Authority, as we all work toward a two-state solution,” he wrote in The Washington Post

If this aim is to be realised, it would be the West Bank-based PA’s first return to the extremely battered area since it was ousted by Hamas in a brief civil war in 2007.

Some observers question whether the PA, deeply unpopular and subjected to increasingly eroded self-rule enclaves in the West Bank, is up to the job. But setting these doubts aside, the PA has its own conditions to take on the mission impossible of creating governance from the rubble, anger and despair of Israel’s bombardments.

Judging from pronouncements to date, it will only do so as part of a framework leading to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition is dead against.

So, unless Israel’s government changes or proves amenable to pressure, a PA return to Gaza could remain a fantasy.

The palestinian Authority is wary of being perceived as being a beneficiary of Israel’s military campaign.

As it stands, the Palestinian Authority is wary of being perceived as being a beneficiary of Israel’s military campaign, which the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says has claimed more than 11,000 Palestinian lives, many of them children.

“Gaza is part of the Palestinian lands but we won’t return to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks,” Ahmed Majdalani, the PA Social Development Minister, told The Jewish Independent by phone from Ramallah.

Israel launched its military campaign, which has prompted outrage in the West Bank and across the Arab world, after Hamas attacked it on October 7 and murdered about 1200 people, some of them in gruesome fashion. It also took some 240 hostages back to Gaza, including children and the elderly.

“We are ready for a complete solution [of the Palestinian issue] with international and regional roles and with an international peace conference, and a political process leading to the two-state solution,” said Majdalani, who is also a member of the PLO executive committee and is considered close to Abbas.

“This means implementing decisions of international legitimacy leading to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with its capital Jerusalem,” he said.

“Within this political context, there can be a return to Gaza and the unification of our lands,” Majdalani said. “But if the occupation wants to impose a security system through us, that is simply impossible.”

Amid scepticism over whether the PA has the credibility and coherence to take on governance of Gaza, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, who visited Ramallah on Friday and held talks with Abbas, proposes boosting its legitimacy by having its role defined by the UN Security Council, getting Arab countries more strongly involved and significantly ramping up EU political backing, all with the aim of making tangible–and not just rhetorical-progress towards an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Maybe you will need support from the international community, but the PA has to return to Gaza,” Borrell told Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayeh during a press conference Friday, according to Reuters.

“We have a certain experience on state-building in Europe and we should engage on that in order to build the Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution,” he added.

Palestinian analysts believe that Israel will prove unable to meet its stated goal in Gaza of eliminating Hamas. Therefore, they stress that any post-war solution will have to take into account surviving elements of the fundamentalist movement that is banned as a terrorist group by leading Western countries.

“Hamas’s military ability and its standing with people won’t end and its fighters would attack any government not agreed among Palestinians,” Jihad Harb, former senior researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said by phone from Ramallah.

EU Chief JOSEP Borrell proposes boosting the PA's legitimacy by having its role defined by the UN Security Council.

“An agreement between Hamas and Fatah (Abbas’s movement that controls the PA) will be a requirement so that Hamas respects the arrangements,” he said. “After all the destruction and great sacrifices, Fatah will not accept a role without a real political path.”

But a political opening is at loggerheads due to the far-right Israeli government’s rejection of any territorial concessions in the West Bank, which it considers an exclusively Jewish patrimony, and its expansion of illegal settlements there.

In fact, Israeli policies have become even harsher under the cover of the Gaza war, with military and settler violence forcing Palestinian civilians out of their homes in the south Hebron hills and Jordan Valley.

Somehow, Israel will have to accept some sort of Hamas involvement in the post-war order if a ruling mechanism is to be set up in Gaza, according to veteran journalist and commentator Daoud Kuttab. “Even though it sounds crazy, there will have to be a power-sharing government,” he told The Jewish Independent Media from Amman.

“When Israel withdraws, there will still be Hamas. The only group that could find common ground with it is the PA.” He suggests that an emergency government could be formed with some of its members approved or appointed by Hamas.

Despite Netanyahu’s rejection of a PA role in post-war Gaza, some Israeli security specialists consider that to be essential. “There is no other option,” says General (retired) Gad Shamni, former commander of the central command and former commander of the Gaza division.

“It has to be strengthened and built up for the challenge. In the intermediate stage, the IDF will continue to rule and to keep cleaning. This will take about two years. Anything else will lead to Hamas coming back.”

The PA didn’t provide security to Palestinians or establish good government. The majority of Palestinians hate it.

Said Ghazali, East Jerusalem journalist

In Shamni’s estimate, about 30% of Gazans support Fatah. “This is not a bad basis,” he told The Jewish Independent Media.

But Fatah and the PA would still need to undergo changes at the top, Shamni says, including replacing Abbas as leader. “You need younger people who can be creative,” he said.

Shamni would like to see Mohammed Dahlan, an exiled leader who was expelled from Fatah amid a bitter dispute with Abbas, take charge. As leader of the Preventive Security apparatus in Gaza during the early days of self-rule, Dahlan cracked down on Hamas and developed close ties with Israel. But he has also been faulted over Fatah’s defeat in the civil war.

Shamni says Dahlan, who later became a security adviser to the UAE, has the advantage of being a Gazan who hails from Khan Yunis refugee camp. But Harb says if Israel installed Dahlan it would have no legitimacy and be seen as a “Saigon government, a collaborator government”.

In the view of Said Ghazali, a veteran East Jerusalem journalist who formerly wrote for The Independent newspaper in the UK, the entire idea of the PA taking over in Gaza is “foolish. The role of the PA in the West Bank is limited to acting like municipalities and providing security for Israel. They didn’t provide security to Palestinians or Israel or establish good government. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians hate the PA with its corrupt leaders.”

Netanyahu is a liability for Biden. Peace is impossible until he goes (Simon Tisdall, Guardian)
The US President’s support for Israel’s PM is damaging America’s reputation abroad, hurting his own chances of re-election and prolonging the suffering in Gaza.

Hamas Is Part of the New Palestinian Ethos That Israel Can't Change (Zvi Bar-el, Haaretz)
The war has provided the terror group with status that any future Palestinian leader can't ignore, including the currently imprisoned Marwan Barghouti.

Inside Israel’s three ‘day after’ options for Gaza amid government split (Ben Caspit, Al-Monitor)
Israel had three main options for administering Gaza after its war against Hamas, all with notable obstacles.

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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