The second Palestinian intifada, a spontaneous expression of anger against the persistent Israeli occupation, has been sustained since last September through a complicated interplay of forces. The early Israeli deployment of sharpshooters quickly shut down large-scale popular protests. In their place, a type of guerrilla resistance, given staunch moral support by the rest of the population, has arisen. Israel’s military closures of Palestinian towns and villages have forced local leaders of Fatah, the main faction in the Palestinian national movement, to take charge. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) is mostly silent about its long-term intentions with regard to the uprising, perhaps partly out of a desire not to be seen internationally as directing the confrontations.

On the occasions when the PA has gripped the reins to steer the intifada in the direction of political compromise, it has been largely successful. Confrontations have eased, despite vocal resistance from some quarters. But the mainstream Fatah grassroots has swollen with an energized membership that has set forth its own demands. These include the continuation of the intifada until the occupation is gone.

Simultaneously, what might be called the “Oslo aristocracy” — those Palestinian leaders commonly associated with the new money and concessionary politics of the agreements crafted in 1993 — has lost ground to a mainstream consensus rejecting the precepts of the Oslo period. All of these developments are greatly altering the Palestinian political scene. A bit tentatively, Palestinians are wondering if those changes can be made permanent.

Altered Public Trust

The Nablus office of Fatah is judiciously located just above the offices of the British Council. If it struck this Palestinian political headquarters with helicopter-borne missiles, the Israeli military would risk destroying the local British cultural mission. Still, as he greets his guests, Nablus Fatah leader Issam Abu Bakr glances wryly at the row of windows adjacent to the long, roughly finished conference table. The obligatory joke he tells about the possibility of assassination rings of bravado, given the deep shadows of exhaustion under his eyes. Abu Bakr pauses when asked about his appearance. “I live a really difficult life,” says the father of three. “There is a lot of fear. We are sitting here in this room and someone could kill us. There is so much pressure — before the intifada, we weren’t thinking about carrying guns against the Israelis.”

The job of reorganizing the several hundred Nablus Fatah members who returned to active party participation with the outbreak of the uprising fell to Abu Bakr. “Many of them were in the Palestinian Authority and when the intifada broke out they all wanted to return to Fatah,” he says, referring to the mass migration from “official” desk and security jobs to activism in the uprising. “This made a mess.” Fatah in Nablus has some 33,000 members, of which “not more than 1,000 are active,” estimates their leader.

Abu Bakr differentiates between the bureaucratic and security institutions of the PA, which are largely Fatah-controlled, and the political party infrastructure of Fatah itself. It is a seemingly fine distinction, as both memberships overlap, but one that is crucial for understanding the challenges Fatah faces today. Abu Bakr is candid about the tension between the different tendencies of his faction. He says the friction between the two has been sporadic, but persistent in Nablus. Right now, however, the relationship is at a low. “Any intifada comes at the price of the authorities. In the first intifada, the Israeli authorities became zero,” he remembers, using a common Arabic expression for worthlessness. “People don’t want any interference. If the Authority comes in and tries to enforce the law, they find that this is hard to do.”

Weakened Bureaucracy

The city of Nablus has just seen one possible result of this tilting balance of power. Two children, Firas al-Agbar, 13, and Khayr al-Din Masri, 17, were killed in a shootout in Nablus streets after confrontations between infamous Fatah fighter Ahmad Tabouk, his followers and residents of the Balata refugee camp. Reportedly, Tabouk opened fire on a member of the PA security services in the camp, injuring several. The camp residents flooded Nablus streets, participating in a full-fledged gunfight in which the two youths were killed. The incident was political in that it matched Fatah against Fatah (the security officer had allegedly once jailed Tabouk in the mid-1990s). But it was also a sign that the rule of law, never strong under the PA, has become much weaker in the climate of the uprising.

The July incident provoked the PA to denounce lawlessness that might play into Israeli hands. “All our citizens should realize that Israel is trying to transfer the battle to Palestinian society so it can defeat our steadfastness,” West Bank intelligence head Tawfiq Tirawi told Voice of Palestine radio. “We will not permit anyone to play with the security of Palestinian society; everybody should comply with Palestinian laws.” While the municipality has since arrested several of those involved in the shooting, in mid-July, the authorities were still investigating the incident. “They have to put [those responsible] in prison,” Abu Bakr says, quietly shaking his head. As Tabouk’s superior in the Nablus tanzim, the Fatah activist corps, Abu Bakr finds himself implicated in this contretemps between elements of the quasi-state party.

This is not the first time that armed fighting has broken out in the city streets. In September 1999, Bashar Abu Salhieh was shot in his butcher shop in Nablus after another dispute between camp and city residents. Then, the New York Times reported, the PA arrested several Fatah members in the Palestinian security branches after days of unrest. But today, the power of the judiciary is weakened by the Israeli closure that prevents the movement of judges and staff. The power of the bureaucracy is weakened by a decimated budget, and the power of the civil infrastructure is weakened by the lack of services or safety. In their stead, the armed grassroots has grown in stature and influence.

Abu Bakr gives a different example of the redistribution of power. The leadership of Fatah in Nablus never directly authorized members to begin carrying out armed operations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he says. Once joint operations took place, the Authority was unable to arrest the perpetrators who were not from Fatah, while allowing its own men to remain free. The implicit understanding here is that because Fatah forms the core of the PA, Fatah decides the Authority’s course of action. (As one Fatah member in Nablus avers, “We are the ones who give the police their power.”) At the beginning of the intifada, Palestinian opposition groups were not a part of circles planning armed resistance. In practice, all of the armed groups now have gained strength, while those trying to curtail armed actions are weakened.

A few blocks away from Abu Bakr’s office, through a heavily guarded hallway and a thick metal door, the mayor is also candid. “We have a problem here,” admits Ghassan Shakaa. He turns in a black leather office chair. “There is no law and order. [But] the police and the security services, they have to work within the law.” But which law? Laws against carrying weapons? Or “laws” against flouting the authority of the PA leadership?

“Palestinians are experiencing a very chaotic internal situation right now,” explained analyst Ghassan al-Khatib in May, listing deterioration of the rule of law, health, security and quality of life. Israeli measures calculated to bring the PA to its knees are behind most of the chaos. The same week that Fatah members in Nablus turned on each other with guns, Mayor Shakaa was considering cutting off electricity to the city for four to six hours a day. The municipality can no longer foot the bill, due to the crippling Israeli economic siege that saps municipal revenues in various indirect ways. Angry citizens complained loudly about the mayor’s rumored personal extravagance and financial favors to his friends. Without redress for the mounting disorder and discord, Abu Bakr predicts an eventual explosion. “The masses are hungry and if they don’t have a solution, there will be problems,” he warns.

Hopes for “Good Governance”

For all its dangers, the erosion of PA rule has also spurred hope in some Palestinians. The same return to grassroots militancy that has pushed the Oslo aristocracy into the background feeds the aspirations of others to instill practices of good governance in the Palestinian leadership.

Since the start of the uprising, demands to remedy the PA’s fiscal and political corruption, lack of transparency and favoritism have threaded through the communications of local organizers to the highest levels of leadership. Yasser Arafat acknowledged as much when he spoke of the need for political and institutional reform at a March meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council. [1] Despite repeated official denials, the PA newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida has reported that a cabinet reshuffle is in the works, and that Hamas has been offered seats in the new cabinet (although certainly at some cost). The public consensus appears to support such a “unity government,” and has coalesced around the need actively to fight Israel at the same time as Palestinian-Israeli talks continue. Off the record, however, an influential Fatah leader says that even if such a government is established, he doubts that the new leadership will work to root out corruption or its causes. [2] This source believes, however, that the intifada has opened the door for an overhaul of the system. He also predicts “an explosion” if public anger over corruption is not addressed.

Another long-time Fatah member says that “corruption is not the problem. The problem is the system itself, the type of culture leading the system.” The corruption noted repeatedly in reports by the Palestinian Legislative Council and foreign institutions working in PA-controlled areas is only symptomatic of a political culture that has been carried from Jordan, to Lebanon, to Tunis and now to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “The Palestinian Authority of today was born not in 1994, but in 1968.” One independent analyst notes that although Arafat meets regularly with local leaders of the uprising, those meetings do not guarantee any effective participation in strategic decision making. In the end, Arafat decides.

One official in the PA describes the sentiment inside Fatah this way: “In the inner circles of Fatah, when we meet, everyone says, ‘We are sick of it. We all know what the problem is.'” Those interested in change fear that any movement in that direction might be manipulated by Israel for its own benefit. Decentralizing authority might reinforce in political terms the Israeli military’s division of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into disconnected cantons. Some Fatah members may interpret campaigns for good governance, particularly if targeted at “corruption,” as the efforts of outside forces trying to damage the PA. But the desire for radical change is there. Palestinian thinkers and political leaders fear that once the intifada is over, those pushing for good governance from the inside will be coopted into the system. The “Oslo aristocracy” could quickly return to its former dominance. For his part, an influential Fatah leader says that something must give, but he is unsure how to start the ball rolling toward a better system. He’s got enough on his shoulders trying to fight the occupation and protect himself and his men. But, he says, he’s taking suggestions.


[1] Rema Hammami and Jamil Hilal, “An Uprising at a Crossroads,” Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).
[2] All quotes in this section are taken from a small-group, off-the-record discussion on islah or good governance, held by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in July 2001.

How to cite this article:

Charmaine Seitz "The Search for Good Governance in Palestine," Middle East Report 220 (Fall 2001).

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