The Abbas paradox: How the PA still holds clout in the West Bank

Abbas’s visit to the Jenin Refugee Camp proved that although the PA has lost much of its credibility among Palestinians, it continues to carry a lot of clout in the West Bank.

 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visits the Jenin Refugee Camp, July 12.  (photo credit: PPO/Handout/REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visits the Jenin Refugee Camp, July 12.
(photo credit: PPO/Handout/REUTERS)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has every reason to be satisfied with the surprise visit he made to the Jenin Refugee Camp on July 12. The fact that the two-hour visit ended without incident was sufficient for the 87-year-old leader and his senior aides to describe it as “successful” and “historical.” 

Some Palestinians had expressed doubt that Abbas would dare visit the camp, which in recent months had become a center for armed groups belonging to his rivals in Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. Even the local gunmen affiliated with his ruling Fatah faction have long been challenging him and the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership. 

Palestinian affairs experts were also doubtful. Since the beginning of the current wave of terrorism 18 months ago, most of which emerged from the northern West Bank, including the city of Jenin and its refugee camp, these experts have gone to great lengths to explain how Abbas and his security forces have effectively lost control of the situation there. Some went as far as predicting that the anarchy and chaos could hasten the collapse of the PA. 

Even after the two Jordanian military helicopters carrying Abbas and his entourage landed in Jenin, some Palestinians were still skeptical about the visit, which came days after Israeli security forces launched the biggest operation in the camp since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. They thought that Abbas would at best hold a closed meeting with the commanders of his security forces and fly back to Ramallah without setting foot in the camp. 

The two-day operation, which resulted in the killing of 12 Palestinians, most of whom were members of the Jenin Battalion and PIJ, left many local residents furious not only with Israel but also with Abbas and the PA security forces. 

 Palestinian gunmen speak at a press conference in the Jenin Refugee Camp, July 6.  (credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS)
Palestinian gunmen speak at a press conference in the Jenin Refugee Camp, July 6. (credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS)

As soon as the Israeli troops pulled out of the camp, dozens of angry residents protested in front of the headquarters of the PA security forces, which were accused of “hiding” in their bases during the military operation. For the protesters, this was proof that the PA and its security forces were working “in collusion” with the Israeli security forces to eradicate the “resistance” groups in the camp. 

After the operation, the PA security forces finally appeared to be taking action against the armed groups by arresting a number of PIJ gunmen in the Jenin area. For Abbas’s critics, this was further proof that he was conspiring with Israel against his own people. 

Skepticism of Abbas's visit to Jenin amid wave of mistrust

The skepticism that preceded Abbas’s visit to the camp was not unjustified. Days before the visit, two senior Fatah officials, Mahmoud al-Aloul and Azzam al-Ahmed, were heckled when they arrived in the camp to attend the funerals of some of the Palestinians killed during the Israeli military operation. The humiliating incident was seen as a sign of what awaited Abbas when he showed up in the camp.

However, Abbas was not prepared to let the expulsion of the two senior Fatah officials spoil his plans. He was determined to prove to Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the world that he was still in control. 

On the eve of the visit, hundreds of PA security officers were deployed in Jenin and its refugee camp in an unprecedented show of force that sent a strong warning to his opponents not to mess with the rais (president).

The warning did not fall on deaf ears. The gunmen who regularly patrol the narrow alleyways of the camp were conspicuously absent when Abbas addressed hundreds of Palestinians who took to the streets to see him in person for the first time in their lives. There were no protests against the visit, and no one dared disrupt Abbas’s speech.

It was Abbas’s first visit to the Jenin Refugee Camp since he was elected president of the PA in January 2005. In 2012, he paid a brief visit to the city of Jenin to offer condolences on the death of governor Kadoura Musa, who died of a heart attack. But there’s no comparing a visit to a city with a visit to a refugee camp, especially one such as the Jenin Refugee Camp – which, alongside other communities such as the Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus, have always been considered extraterritorial zones for PA leaders and the Palestinian security forces. Most of these camps are controlled by armed groups affiliated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Abbas’s own Fatah. These groups are careful not to engage in a direct confrontation with the PA security forces and repeatedly state that their guns will always be directed only against Israel. 

If anything, Abbas’s visit to the Jenin Refugee Camp proved that although the PA has lost much of its credibility among Palestinians, it continues to carry a lot of clout in the West Bank.

How does the Palestinian Authority still have clout in the West Bank?

Citing the ongoing security coordination with Israel, many Palestinians view the PA as a “subcontractor” for the Israeli security establishment. 

Public opinion polls conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research have repeatedly shown that a majority of Palestinians are unhappy with the performance of Abbas and the PA. 

The most recent poll, conducted in June, revealed that half of the public believe that the interest of the Palestinian people lies in the dissolution or the collapse of the PA. The poll found that 80% of the public want Abbas to resign, while another 84% believe there is corruption in PA institutions. 

The results of the poll did not come as a surprise to those who have been following the PA since its inception in 1994 subsequent to the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. The PA has always been viewed by many Palestinians as corrupt and incompetent. Moreover, Abbas has never been regarded as a popular and charismatic leader, especially when compared to his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. 

Some Palestinians hold Abbas personally responsible for the defeat of Fatah in the 2006 parliamentary election, which saw Hamas win a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. They also hold him responsible for the Hamas takeover of the entire Gaza Strip in 2007, arguing that he had actually handed the coastal enclave to the Islamist group on a silver platter by allegedly failing to order the PA security forces to thwart the “coup.”

These Palestinians also blame Abbas for the fragmentation of Fatah by expelling some of its prominent and veteran leaders, such as Mohammed Dahlan, a former security chief; and Nasser al-Qidwah, a nephew of Arafat and former foreign minister. 

In recent years, Abbas also been accused by many Palestinians of transforming the PA into an authoritarian regime by continuously failing to hold new presidential and parliamentary elections, refusing to share power, and blocking the emergence of new leaders. 

Worse, he has been accused of ordering a crackdown on his political rivals and stifling public freedoms, including freedom of expression. Yet Abbas appears to have remained unfazed by the criticism. 

Until a few years ago, Abbas’s first order of business when he walked into his office in the Mukata presidential compound was to receive a review of the newspapers and other media outlets. These days, he asks instead, “What are we having for breakfast today?”

 Jenin residents protest against arrests made by PA security forces, July 17.  (credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS)
Jenin residents protest against arrests made by PA security forces, July 17. (credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS)

Despite his shortcomings, Abbas has managed to keep the PA intact and prevent its collapse. He has also managed to prevent the areas under his control from plunging into total anarchy and chaos despite the appearance of the armed groups on the streets of Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps. Most importantly, he has succeeded in circumventing outright revolt against his rule in the West Bank.

The PA government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, continues to manage the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinians, despite the severe financial crisis it has been facing for years. 

The PA security forces, as well as the blue-uniformed police, continue to carry out their duties, notwithstanding scarce resources and low salaries. The rate of crime in the PA-controlled territories remains as low as ever, and the Palestinian Police almost every day boasts of solving yet another homicide or armed robbery. 

The two most important (and notorious) Palestinian security services – General Intelligence and Preventive Security – remain fully loyal to Abbas as they spearhead the crackdown on Hamas and PIJ members in the West Bank. Most of the prominent PLO and Fatah leaders in the West Bank – and, to a certain extent, in the Gaza Strip – also remain loyal to Abbas, in spite of the criticism one of them might voice behind closed doors. 

It is therefore safe to say that Abbas and the PA have not faced any real challenges since the Hamas “coup” in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Some Palestinians attribute this, among other things, to the presence of the Israeli security forces in the West Bank. Abbas needs Israel as much as Israel needs him, they argue. Hence, the Israeli security cabinet’s recent decision to work toward preventing the collapse of the PA. It’s hard to find Israelis who want to go back to the pre-1994 era, when Israel was responsible for collecting garbage and providing medical and educational services to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Others say the relative state of stability in the West Bank is the result of the tough measures employed by the Palestinian security forces. If Abbas, whose term in office expired in January 2009, is so unpopular and has lost his credibility among most Palestinians, what is stopping them from rising up against him and toppling the PA?

There is no simple answer to this question, but the following factors might help to account for the complacency:

  • First, Abbas seems to be doing a good job in buying loyalty through salaries and stipends he pays to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The PA has 150,000 to 200,000 civil servants on its payroll; although most of them have been receiving only 70% and 80% of their salaries in the past few months due to the financial crisis, they appear, for now, to be content with the fact that they still see a few thousand shekels in their bank accounts at the end of the month. The employees are well aware that a mutiny against Abbas and the PA leadership would not solve their predicament. On the contrary, they know that coming out against the Ramallah-based leadership would have dire consequences, including losing their sole source of income. 
  • Second, many Palestinians in the West Bank don’t see Hamas or any other group as a better alternative to the PA. Although Hamas is popular among Palestinians in some areas of the West Bank, these individuals are not necessarily eager to live under the rule of the Islamist group. A likely scenario is that they look at the Gaza Strip and say to themselves, “We prefer the hell of Abbas to the heaven of Hamas.” After all, the general situation in the West Bank is not all that bad compared to the Gaza Strip. Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank enter Israel every day, with and without permits. An estimated 25,000 to 35,000 are employed in settlements. And it’s much easier for a Palestinian from the West Bank to travel abroad than those living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The Palestinians living under the rule of the PA do not take these things for granted.
  • Third, many Palestinians in the West Bank are less worried about the lack of democracy and general elections. For most families, the economy, freedom of movement, and security appear to take precedence over a free and independent media or even freedom of expression. They have learned the basic rule of living under the PA: Don’t mess with Abbas, his two sons, or any of the senior officials associated with him – and you might be able to stay out of harm’s way. Thousands of Palestinians who did not abide by this rule, or whose loyalty to Abbas and the PA leadership was in question, have lost their salaries or financial and social benefits. 
  • Fourth, the armed groups that have emerged in the northern West Bank, specifically in the areas of Jenin and Nablus, have thus far not posed a direct challenge or threat to the PA and its security forces. True, many of the gunmen are critical of the PA, but they have refrained from directing their weapons against Abbas or any of his men. The gunmen know that such a move would not come without a price, such as losing the widespread sympathy they enjoy among the Palestinian public. According to the last poll, more than 70% of the Palestinians support the armed groups, such as the Jenin Battalion and the Lions’ Den. This support, however, is likely to vanish once the armed groups are seen as promoting civil war. The gunmen also know that the officers of the much-feared General Intelligence and Preventive Security are capable of laying their hands on them any time they want. 

Many in Israel are struggling to understand whether Abbas is an ally or an adversary. Plainly speaking, he could be both. His harsh anti-Israel rhetoric and the PA policy known as Pay-for-Slay, in which the relatives of Palestinians who kill Jews are paid a salary in perpetuity, show that Abbas is no friend of Israel. So does his diplomatic campaign against Israel in the international arena. Yet, the actions of the PA security forces, particularly the ongoing security coordination with Israel and the crackdown on Hamas and PIJ members, imply that he’s at least a sometime partner in the war on terrorism. 

What is certain is that Abbas is a man of contradictions. One the one hand, he glorifies Palestinians who murder Israelis; on the other hand, he orders the arrest of Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank. 

What is also certain is that Abbas has kept a tight grip on the PA over the past two decades, bringing relative stability to the West Bank, much to the satisfaction of Israel and his US and European funders. It now remains to be seen whether his successor will be able to maintain the relative equilibrium that Abbas has excelled in preserving or if all hell will break loose instead.  ■