From September 23-26, Palestinian security forces and civilian demonstrators clashed with Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns and helicopters leaving approximately 80 Palestinians and 14 Israeli dead and 1,200 Palestinian and Israeli wounded. The pitched battles, which began in East Jerusalem the previous day and quickly spread to Ramallah, Bethlehem, the Gaza Strip and finally the rest of the West Bank, resulted in the worst bloodshed the Occupied Territories have witnessed since the June 1967 war. [1]

These events constitute neither an organized uprising nor an entirely spontaneous revolt. Rather, the opening provided by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) calls for Palestinian protests was utilized by students at Birzeit University (with the backing of Fatah’s Shabiba student movement) to take on the Israeli military, on their own initiative and despite initial attempts by PA forces at the scene to prevent them from doing so. When Israeli soldiers at the al-Bira checkpoint responded with indiscriminate gunfire against the stone-throwing students, several PA policemen were shamed into returning fire to defend them or otherwise joined the fray. The West Bank Commander of the Palestinian Police, Hajj Isma‘il Abu Jabr, almost ignited civil war when he arrived to threaten punishment for those who continued firing. He was chased away unceremoniously, and other orders to desist were similarly ignored. Subsequently, the Preventative Security Force (Jihaz al-Amn al-Wiqa‘i), which is almost entirely composed of hardened Fatah militants from inside the Occupied Territories, joined the exchanges as an organized force. It appears that their participation was imposed upon, rather than ordered by, Arafat. [2]

Prior to these events Netanyahu’s explicit rejection of any compromise over Jerusalem had only strengthened Arafat’s conviction that a crisis would be required to ensnare Netanyahu, concentrate American minds and strengthen his position among the Palestinians. On August 29, after obtaining a public commitment from Israeli President Ezer Weizmann to meet him if Netanyahu would not, Arafat called a national commercial strike. Within days it produced the long-awaited encounter, but nothing else. This was followed by the Israeli demolition of the Burj al-Luqluq Centre for handicapped children within Jerusalem’s Old City, loudly announced plans for additional settlements and, finally, the extension of a tunnel excavated alongside the Haram al-Sharif complex into the heart of East Jerusalem.

Despite having encouraged Palestinian protest, the PA leadership was reeling from the intensity of events and its inability to control either its forces or population. Nevertheless, with characteristic acumen, Arafat quickly turned the crisis to his advantage. Holding out against Netanyahu’s desperate appeals for a meeting, he forced the amateurish Israeli leader to publicly demonstrate that Israel remained committed to its partnership with the Palestinians and that it considered Arafat the key Palestinian player in this relationship. Arafat then quickly moved to quell the protests and rein in his forces, holding out the prospect of progress at the Washington summit as an incentive. For the moment at least, and despite the dismal failure of the summit, his own standing and particularly that of the security forces have soared.

The September rebellion, while revealing internal fractures within the PA, appears to have consolidated the relationship between it and the new Israeli government. Both leaderships have made clear that the continued implementation of Oslo is their strategic priority. In the absence of meaningful progress, however, the Palestinian street (perhaps once more augmented by the active participation of armed PA elements) will eventually explode again. If the new security arrangements are upheld, a direct confrontation between the PA and the Palestinians seems inevitable. If Israel were to attempt to reoccupy the enclaves, Palestinians are quick to point out that it took Israel only six days to defeat the Arab world but six years to conquer the Gaza Strip.

Oslo II in Crisis

Despite the redeployment of the Israeli military from large sections of the Gaza Strip and most West Bank cities and the assumption of power within these areas by the PA, Israeli control over Palestinians is exercised now with greater vigor than at any time since the occupation began in June 1967. Where the Declaration of Principles (DOP) initially enjoyed general popular acceptance, there now remain only a handful of Palestinians prepared to defend it in private. Although most ascribe their disillusionment to the conduct of the Israeli authorities, the performance of the PA, or both, an increasing number realize that Israeli and Palestinian practices on the whole are consistent with the accord and the arrangements it has produced. Ever so gradually, appeals for the faithful implementation and proper stewardship of the DOP are giving way to demands for its fundamental reconsideration.

In contrast to most Palestinian exiles, who from the outset rejected the DOP because it relegated them to the furthest margins of the Israeli-Palestinian equation, reassessment of this agreement within the Occupied Territories has been a slower and more complex process. The majority of Palestinians accepted the PLO’s argument that in the post-Gulf war and Cold War context the accords could neither be refused nor improved, and that despite its shortcomings it created a new dynamic that would ultimately result in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Repeated PLO proclamations that the transitional phase would be characterized above all by tangible improvements in personal security and economic prosperity were eagerly embraced by a population driven to utter desperation by Israeli repression and a stagnant intifada. [3]

The warm welcome accorded Yasser Arafat and his entourage of soldiers and bureaucrats when they entered Gaza in July 1994 revealed the high hopes Palestinians continued to attach to the DOP even though little had been achieved in the intervening months to inspire popular confidence. Largely isolated from prior direct contact with the PLO apparatus, residents of the Occupied Territories generally retained an idealized notion of its character and capabilities. Those with a more nuanced view assumed that the PA would be more responsive to popular opinion than the PLO had been, and additionally felt a moral obligation to give the historic leadership an opportunity to succeed. Only a small minority insisted that Arafat and his lieutenants signed onto the DOP to revive their own flagging fortunes, and would be reduced to junior partners in the administration of Israeli rule. The rude awakening experienced by many Palestinians during the first year of autonomy did not fundamentally alter the popular consensus in favor of the DOP. Autonomy was considered the lesser of two evils when compared to direct Israeli occupation. PA misconduct was rationalized as the product of inexperience and individual malfeasance; and the deteriorating economic situation was attributed to Israeli restrictions and the donor community’s inertia. The PA’s inability to confront a very palpable Israeli hegemony, however, set against its very public cooperation with Israel’s security forces (most notably the “joint patrols”), damaged its reputation.

Post-Oslo II

With hindsight, the period between the signing of the September 25, 1995 Interim Agreement (or “Oslo II”) and the suicide bombings carried out by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Islamic Jihad in February and March of 1996 represents the high point of the DOP. The PLO, faced with mounting criticism of its strategy, performance and conduct, was able to claim, with the extension of autonomy to West Bank cities, that “Gaza-Jericho First” was only a beginning. The January 1996 elections for an 88-member Palestinian Council and of Yasser Arafat as ra’is of the Palestinian Executive Authority endowed the PA with sorely needed political legitimacy. [4] The smooth transition to Peres after Rabin’s assassination, and Israeli public reaction to this event, increased Palestinian hope that Israel might be serious about reaching a genuine peace. The Palestinian opposition’s decision to boycott the self-rule institutions led to its further marginalization and increased dissent within its already fragmented ranks.

The unprecedented Israeli siege of the occupied territories imposed in the wake of the suicide bombings constituted a turning point for Palestinian public opinion. The hermetic closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the policy of “separation” removed any remaining ambiguities about the nature of post-Oslo Israeli-Palestinian relations. Equally, this period — which saw an unprecedented PA campaign against anyone and anything currently or formerly Islamist — left little to the imagination regarding the PA’s own role within this relationship. Conclusively demonstrating that Palestinian economic fortunes remain a function of the Israeli-Palestinian balance of power — that is to say at the total mercy of Israel — “separation” has reestablished for Palestinians the connection between political context and quality of life that the PLO had done its best to sever.

Isolated Enclaves

While Palestinians had been subject to Israeli restrictions affecting virtually every aspect of daily life prior to autonomy, the Interim Agreement formalized the fragmentation of the Occupied Territories into zones of Palestinian and Jewish settlement and the atomization of Palestinian society. In the West Bank, only approximately 3 percent of the total surface area, comprising the majority of Palestinian towns, is under full PA control (Area A). Because the towns are non-contiguous, and Israel remains in command of the road network connecting them, all movement of goods and persons into and out of, and between these enclaves can be interdicted at will.

In the villages, most of which fall within “Area B” (altogether approximately 27 percent of the West Bank), the PA has only civil and police powers, while Israel remains responsible for “internal security” the meaning of which it is free to define. According to the terms of Oslo II, Israel can — and routinely does — continue with land confiscations, mass arrests, house demolitions, defoliation, prolonged curfews, arbitrary violence and any other measure it sees fit to impose on the pretext of security.

Nearly 70 percent of the West Bank is classified as Area C. Comprising the Jewish settlements (including the center of Hebron), water-rich areas, border regions, mains roads and most lands outside Palestinian municipal and village boundaries (but also several Palestinian villages), Area C is a contiguous whole that both surrounds Areas A and B in their entirety and parcels them into isolated enclaves. Pursuant to Oslo II, Area C is not subject to restrictions regarding the further expansion of Jewish settlement. In accordance with the Interim Agreement, jurisdiction over the settlements has been transferred from the civil administration of the military government within the Occupied Territories to the state apparatus within Israel, consolidating their position as integral, undifferentiated components of Israeli territory and public administration. Area C also includes numerous “bypass roads” constructed during the past several years, at an enormous cost in terms of Palestinian land, in order to erase the boundaries between Israel and the settlements, and to provide easy access between settlements “bypassing” Palestinian enclaves. In mid-September 1996, a new $40 million road including the largest Israeli tunnel was opened in the West Bank to integrate the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem with metropolitan Jerusalem. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert asserted that this road would make Gush Etzion “a permanent part of Israel.” [5]

In the Gaza Strip, a contiguous if oddly shaped 60 percent is Area A with most of the remainder classified as Area C. Entirely surrounded on three sides by electrified razor wire and a heavily patrolled coastline on the fourth, the entry and exit of goods and persons is strictly controlled by a series of permanent Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints. In principle, the only persons who may pass are senior PLO and PA officials, a select number of Palestinian businessmen and drivers with prior clearance, and a maximum of 50,000 men who are married, with children, over the age of 30 with clean security records and with permits to work in Israel. [6] In practice, Israel on several occasions has prevented Yasser Arafat from leaving Gaza, banned several senior PA officials from doing so (including Social Affairs Minister Intisar al-Wazir — Umm Jihad — for attempting to smuggle several students to Birzeit University in the West Bank), and routinely prevented most or all workers from reaching their jobs for prolonged periods. With respect to goods, Israeli products as a rule have unrestricted entry to the Gaza Strip, while imports from other countries often experience bureaucratic warfare and associated storage costs. Israel’s policy on Palestinian exports similarly seeks to ensure continued dependence upon Israel and prevent the emergence of a recognizably Palestinian economy. [7]

According to senior Israeli military and intelligence officers, no suicide bomber has ever applied for a permit to enter Israel. Likewise, no Palestinian with a valid work permit has been convicted of a “terrorist” offense. Such officers see closure as a misguided and ultimately counterproductive political response to an essentially military challenge. Other observers have argued that closure is (or at least has become) a political strategy rather than security tactic whose economic consequences (up to 70 percent unemployment in the Gaza Strip, widespread poverty throughout the Occupied Territories, and a rapidly growing PA budget deficit which has paralyzed its ability to deliver services) [8] make violence more, rather than less, likely.

Although no longer physically present, Israeli administration remains very much in evidence within the PA areas as well. Birth certificates, identity cards, driver licenses, applications of various sorts, even Palestinian passports, must all be registered with and approved by the military government in order to attain official status. The difference here is that Palestinians outside Jerusalem now conduct such procedures through the PA rather than directly, leading to considerable delays and frustration.

Although “internal closure” has thus far been imposed as an extraordinary rather than permanent measure the separation of East Jerusalem and its annexed environs (comprising roughly 20 percent of the West Bank) from the rest of the West Bank has been fully institutionalized; as a “final status” issue Jerusalem is in fact excluded from the terms of the Interim Agreement. Without an Israeli permit, which as a rule is virtually impossible to obtain, Palestinians may neither enter the Jerusalem area nor pass through it. Permanent military checkpoints on most primary and secondary roads leading out of the West Bank, constant patrols within Jerusalem, and stiff fines and prison sentences for violators, have ensured that few Palestinians today venture into their political, economic, cultural and institutional capital, to which they enjoyed virtually unrestricted access prior to Oslo.

Dissipating Support

If the PA could initially count on massive public support in the Occupied Territories because most inhabitants had simply not read the DOP or believed it would be overtaken by an inexorable dynamic leading to Palestinian statehood, its prestige has been shattered by reality. Instead of the improvements in the quality of life intended to underpin the interim stage, most Palestinians today are poorer than before Oslo. With the PA incapable, in fact as well as perception, of effectively challenging Israeli policies or mobilizing the international community to do so, the belief that no agreement at all would have been preferable to the present arrangements is gaining ground.

The PA’s approach to government and state building, its relationship with Israel, and the role of the opposition have all contributed to the spreading pessimism. Best characterized as an elected autocrat, the PA’s ra’is possesses a seemingly limitless capacity for micro-managing the public and private sectors, and consequently an equally impressive ability to coopt, marginalize or outmaneuver his critics with comparatively little violence. Arafat brooks no opposition to his own person or position as uncontested leader, and has moved decisively to crush such dissent by whatever means necessary. Most of the violence, meted out by his security forces, however, has been aimed at improving the PA’s standing with Israel and the West rather than directly bolstering his rule. While the PLO’s traditional pluralism continues to survive in attenuated form, democracy is permitted only to the extent that it respects autocracy. Concerning freedom of expression, for example, PA security forces in August, confiscated and banned books by Palestinian intellectual Edward Said that unequivocally denounce both Oslo and Arafat. [9]

The Palestinian media, meanwhile, promotes the personality cult of the leader as faithfully as any of its Arab counterparts. Palestinian television (headquartered in Arafat’s office) daily broadcasts several songs of praise and additional eulogies. The media’s responsibilities were emphasized when Mahir al-‘Alami, night editor of al-Quds newspaper, was arrested by the PA’s Preventative Security for relegating to an inside page a statement by Greek Orthodox Archbishop Theodorus likening Arafat to the first Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem, Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab.

The judiciary has fared little better. As Graham Usher points out, the plethora of Palestinian security services (most recently augmented by Jihaz Amn al-Jami‘at, the Universities Security Agency) are neither regulated by legislation nor subject to regular legal review. [10] In mid-August, however, the Palestinian Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought against the PA by ten Birzeit University students who have been detained without charge or trial since the February-March suicide bombings. When the court ordered their immediate release, its president, Amin ‘Abd al-Salam, was immediately forced into retirement and his ruling ignored. In other cases suspects have been arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced within hours by State Security Courts.

Hopes that the Palestinian Council would act as an effective counterweight to the executive branch on the whole have failed to materialize. Its powers of legislation are restricted by the corpus of Israeli military orders which cannot be repealed or contradicted without permission from the Israeli military government. Additionally, Arafat has coopted several of its most prominent independents, including ‘Abd al-Jawad Salih, Hanan ‘Ashrawi and ‘Imad al-Falluji, into his cabinet. [11] Even if devoid of results, substantial debate and criticism, however, is possible within the Palestinian Council, which is becoming more resistive in reaction to the growing frustration of its members and popular cynicism (in a recent public opinion survey, 46.7 percent stated that the Council “represents the people well but with no effect”). [12]

Although the Palestinian Council remains a significant forum, the more likely source of effective opposition is the Palestinian street. Under-mobilized and provided with no meaningful role in national reconstruction, ordinary people find the process of state building all too easily obscured by the realities of easy money being amassed by monopolists and others popularly derided as “mafia.” While Palestinians do not belittle the significance of being able to walk the streets more safely than before and enjoy a day at the beach, “this is not what we fought and died for” has become a national refrain. According to a recent poll, 68.5 percent of those describing themselves “not well-to-do” are pessimistic about their future. By contrast, 54.9 percent of the “well-to-do” are optimistic. [13]

Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the feeling of abandonment is palpable. The Islamist opposition, held responsible for provoking the closure and contributing to Netanyahu’s rise, and the radical left, whose basically unchanged political slogans seem irrelevant, offer no viable alternatives to the PA. Asked which Palestinian movement they trust most, 34 percent chose Fatah, 6.5 percent Hamas, 2.8 percent the PFLP and 29.4 percent “do not trust anyone.” [14] The mainstream Fatah movement, increasingly marginalized with Arafat’s transformation from the leader of a national movement to head of government (and the attendant decline of factional politics), must itself be considered a potential force for political reform.

Few who have followed developments in the “peace process” thus far, particularly since the imposition of “separation,” can realistically claim that it will result in Palestinian self determination. What is emerging, rather, is a series of “arabistans,” ruled by a native authority, but subject to overall Israeli control. So long as Israeli rule continues to accommodate Palestinian authority, therefore, the future of the DOP will come to rest upon the ability of Israel and the PA to jointly control an increasingly disillusioned, and restive, Palestinian population.


[1] According to the Palestinian human rights community, 60 percent of the injured suffered head and chest injuries, and 40 percent of the injured were children. Moreover, most Palestinian dead appear to have been killed by single bullets, indicating a shoot to kill policy carried out by snipers rather than indiscriminate fire.
[2] Subsequent claims to the effect that Arafat the night before had ordered his praetorian guard, Force 17, to “defend themselves” if fired upon are in my view ex post facto rumors intended to demonstrate that the PA was in full control of events and should therefore be credited for them. At the same time, it does appear that the PA, once confronted with the irreversible fact of imminent involvement by sections of its security forces, provided tacit authorization.
[3] For more on this last point, see Graham Usher, “Why Gaza Mostly Says Yes,” Middle East International, September 24, 1993.
[4] Ra’is, which can be translated as both “president” and “chairman,” is, for this reason, the term used to designate Arafat’s status in the otherwise English-language Interim Agreement. The Palestinian Executive Authority is the PA’s executive branch (i.e. cabinet). The Palestinian Council, informally known as the Legislative Council, is a PA body not to be confused with the Palestine National Council (PNC), which serves as the supreme authority of the PLO.
[5] “Israel Confiscates 1,000 Acres,” Palestine Report, September 6, 1996.
[6] The same holds true for passage from the West Bank to Israel, but on account of the longer border and hilly terrain is much more difficult to enforce.
[7] See Jennifer Olmsted, “Thwarting Palestinian Development” in this issue.
[8] The financial costs of closure, adding up to several million dollars a day ($6 million according to a PA estimate) during periods of full closure, far outweigh the total volume of donor assistance. The costs of closure moreover are generally borne by individual families and firms, whereas donor assistance is largely disbursed to the PA and other institutions. Donor assistance also cannot cover long-term structural damage in terms of reduced expatriate and foreign investment, delays in infrastructural projects, and the like. The vast increase in the PA’s budget deficit (in early September, $136 million or approximately 40 percent of the annual budget) is primarily on account of reduced tax receipts.
[9] Corrie Shanahan, “PA Bans Books by Edward Said,” Palestine Report, August 30, 1996.
[10] Graham Usher, “The Politics of Internal Security: The PA’s New Intelligence Services,” Journal of Palestine Studies 25/2 (Winter 1996).
[11] The above are ministers of agriculture, higher education and communications, respectively.
[12] Jamil Rabah and Corrie Shanahan, “JMCC Public Opinion Poll,” Palestine Report, August 30, 1996. Public opinion polls are by nature problematic, and particularly so in circumstances such as those in Palestine. Nevertheless, questions that do not directly address the leader’s status or basic policies often provide a useful indication of popular thinking.
[13] Jamil Rabah and Manal Jamal, “Well-to-do Palestinians More Optimistic,” Palestine Report, September 6, 1996.
[14] Rabah and Shanahan, ”JMCC.” When asked which leader they trust most, 38.5 percent chose Arafat, 3.0 percent Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, 1.4 percent George Habash, and 20.5 percent “I do not trust anyone.”

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani "Palestinian Authority, Israeli Rule," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

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