Understanding The 3Ps Of Palestinian Engagement

Politics, power play, and passivity have become the hallmarks of governance and they are redefining the way regional actors and international players work with the State.

As Hamas fired rockets at Israel and the latter’s retaliation killed dozens in Gaza on May 10, a seemingly unperturbed President Mahmoud Abbas did what he was best at. He swiftly ordered the cancellation of Eid al-Fitr celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan and the lowering of flags to half-mast to mourn the souls of the martyrs.

In the days that followed, Abbas was more forthcoming. He attended a leadership meeting at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah, where he merely said his government was doing everything possible to defend the Palestinian people. He attended a diplomatic phone call from US President Joe Biden, where the need to stop Hamas was stressed and an appeal for US intervention to rein in Israel was made. That was it. The head of the State and president of Fatah-dominated Palestine Authority (PA), the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, had nothing significant to say or do!

This is not the first instance of the President’s characteristic wait-and-watch approach coming in the way of peace and development in Palestine. He always wanted somebody to rescue the country from its apocalyptic struggle and provide it with the necessary funds for subsistence. The power circles betted on individual strengths rather than on collective responsibility. Into that void entered Hamas with its rapid actions and considerable ingenuity, giving a clear message that it would stand up for Jerusalem as much as it would for Gaza.

It was the Joint Chamber of Palestinian Resistance Factions in the Gaza Strip that stood up against the police violence at Al-Aqsa on May 10 and issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its forces from the mosque compound and Sheikh Jarrah, besides seeking the release of those detained as tensions spiraled in East Jerusalem in the previous days, by 6 pm that day. It was Hamas that fired a series of rockets to Jerusalem – a first since 2014 – shortly after the deadline expired. The conflict that snowballed into a full-fledged war over the next 11 days resulted in the death of 277 Palestinians and the massive destruction of the resource-starved Gaza Strip. Was there a way to avoid it? Did Palestinians fall prey to Israeli airstrikes because trigger-happy Hamas was allowed to set the agenda?

Had Abbas put people’s aspirations above his quest for power and intervened at the right time, things could have been far better. But the usual refrain that talks always fail became an excuse for not starting it at all. Further, Palestinians have lost faith in any sort of dialogue and now prefer only action, something Hamas has plenty to offer and is the foundation of its growing popularity.

In the past, any discussion between Israel and Palestine was designed to provide a satisfactory explanation on why the talks failed, rather than what solutions were found on the issues tabled. The excuse can be anything – the absence of personal chemistry, lack of trust, bad timing, coalition politics, and insurmountable deadlines to name a few. But one of the reasons behind the repeated failure to reach a two-state agreement has been the Palestinian leadership’s inability to surpass Israel’s proclivity for the status quo. Israel does not want a political or social upheaval at any cost. At the same time, no international pressure could stop it if it wants to annex West Bank and Gaza to erase the dream of a Palestine State. The only thing that stops it is the fact that Israelis prefer a Jewish majority homeland.

Abbas has not been able to leverage regional cooperation to further the Palestinian cause. When Israel airstrikes turned Gaza into a sea of rubble, the Arab world chose to ignore it. The UAE, which signed the Abraham Accords last year to normalize ties with Israel, made a meek call to end clashes in Jerusalem and prevent practices that violate the sanctity of Al-Aqsa mosque. The country’s President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan made no public comment on the war. Saudi Arabia, which has been secretly enhancing its cooperation with Israel though it has not signed the Abraham Accords, just condemned the flagrant violations of Palestinian rights. As such, the Arab world no longer sees the Palestinian conflict as a greater risk to the region than the calls for democratization arising out of the Arab Spring.

The US relationship with Palestine has also been equally perplexing. Three days after an Egypt-brokered ceasefire ended the war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Abbas in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and pledged development and economic assistance of US $75 million to Palestinians. The same US had earlier committed to replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system that successfully thwarted the majority of the rockets fired by Hamas.

Though the US also promised $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance to Gaza, any such help has to be routed through Abbas as the western power considers Hamas, which has been ruling the Strip since 2007, a terrorist organization and will not engage with it. For the same reason, the US does not want Hamas to come to power in the occupied West Bank, a prospect that allowed Abbas to effortlessly call off the legislative elections in April. Israel too does not fancy the idea of an always mission-ready outfit at the helm of affairs. Result: an ageing and unfettered Abbas calls off poll after poll under the guise of his clout as a world leader upholding democracy.

Egypt, the only country with a land border with Gaza, did broker a ceasefire plan to end the war. But it has no love lost for Hamas, which it considers is a close ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had wrested power in a military coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist affiliated with the Brotherhood. The PA had no role in the negotiations, which saw Hamas directly holding talks with the international mediators.

Despite the international community’s reluctance to accept it, Hamas does not take no for an answer. The fact that it is not bound by any commitment to refrain from violence unlike the PA makes things easier for the outfit. However, Israel seems to benefit from the persistent friction between the PA and Hamas as it seriously hampers the President’s ability to negotiate.

Despite losing men and machines in Israeli bombardments, Hamas has reached out to all political factions, except the ruling Fatah, to form a unified national leadership to wrest control of the occupied West Bank from Abbas. If nothing else, it would trigger another cycle of violence with regional actors and wealthy western donors tacitly supporting Abbas and his right to persist. It would have a crippling effect on the daily lives of Palestinians who are reeling under poor governance and amenities, corruption, rights violations by both the PA and Israeli occupiers, land and house grab by Jewish settlers, and ghettoization of the highest order.

Presently, security cooperation with Israel and expansion of Jewish settlements on a scale never seen before are the issues of greatest concern for the Palestinians. A vestige of the Oslo-era structures, security coordination to share intelligence with the Israel Army was suspended for six months last year to protest the Jewish State’s plans to annex large parts of West Bank. However, Abbas conveniently wriggled out of it after six months by citing a confirmation from Israel to remain committed to past agreements.

The real reason for restoring the coordination was a severe financial crunch that arose after Palestine, as a mark of protest, rejected tax transfers worth $1.14 billion. Tax revenue, managed by Israel under interim peace accords from the 1990s, makes up for more than half of the PA’s budget. It is collected by the Israeli government on behalf of the PA on Palestinian imports and exports going through Israeli ports. Israel earns three per cent commission on the total levy collected.

Abbas’ frequent threats to end security cooperation are not in consonance with the realities and any such move would succeed only if the Oslo Accords-driven dependency for everything from travel permits to water supply is replaced by governing structures that allow Palestinians to live a life of dignity. That said, the hard truth remains that all past agreements were designed to give Israel an upper hand in the scheme of things.

By now, it is quite clear to Palestinians that Abbas does not have the wherewithal to even defend his people who are arrested and imprisoned by Israel based on the intelligence provided by the PA. Neither has he done anything substantial to stop Israeli settlements in West Bank and Jerusalem, where over 600,000 Jews live now. When Palestinian’s take to the streets in protest, the PA security services unleash violence against them and slap stringent charges on them.

It will not be wrong to claim that many peace-loving Palestinians are forced to rally behind Hamas due to the incompetency of the fractured PA leadership. As a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is nothing but a daydream, an organization that puts into action the zeal of Hamas and the nationalist democratic views of Fatah is the need of the hour. Only Palestinians can decide whether they should go beyond the 3Ps of politics, power play, and passivity to build a future on a strong foundation for themselves.

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