Why is the Palestinian Authority unable to mobilise its people?

For decades the PA has suppressed Palestinian protests and undermined Palestinian mass mobilisation.

Palestinian demonstrators
Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest against President Trump's Middle East plan on January 28, 2020 [File: Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

With the announcement of the Trump administration’s “deal of the century” on January 28, the Palestinian Authority (PA) sprung into action. Within hours of the White House ceremony, at which US President Donald Trump released the details of his plan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said “a thousand no’s to the deal of the century”.

The PA then proceeded to issue a number of threats, including once again to sever ties with Israel’s security agencies, and a call for mass demonstrations against the proposed deal.

Despite its rhetorical huffs and puffs, however, the Palestinian leadership could not muster a powerful reaction to the outrageous infringement on Palestinian rights that Trump’s proposal really is. It could not even mobilise its own people. Why?

Because for more than 20 years now the PA has actively participated in the repression of the Palestinian people, while maintaining a close relationship with Israeli security forces. Its attitude, rhetoric, and policies in the past and in the present have always been directed not at protecting the rights and wellbeing of the Palestinian people, but at maintaining power at any cost.

The “deal of the century” has unmasked the PA’s duplicity and the toll it has taken on Palestinian mass mobilisation.

Repressing Palestinian dissent

Since its establishment in 1994 as a result of the disastrous Oslo accords, the PA has done little more than help Israel pacify the Palestinians while their land, property, and resources have been taken over by Jewish settlers. To secure its power, the Palestinian leadership has maintained close cooperation with Israel, torturing Palestinian dissidents and providing intelligence on Palestinian activists.

It has also violently quashed any public protest that threatened its grip on power or has been considered a “threat” by the Israelis. It has repeatedly deployed its national guard, riot police, and thugs loyal to Fatah, the party that dominates the PA, to suppress dissent.

My first experience of the PA’s heavy hand was in 2011 during a demonstration in Ramallah’s Manara Square in solidarity with revolutions in neighbouring Arab countries. Hundreds of young people gathered peacefully, chanting political slogans, calling for unity between Fatah and Hamas and against the Oslo order. Within hours we were attacked, harassed, and arrested.

In 2012, we went out on a protest against the planned visit to Ramallah of Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, a man accused of committing countless crimes against the Palestinians, including the massacre in Jenin during the second Intifada and the assassination of various Palestinian leaders.

We saw his meeting with Abbas as yet another act of PA complicity with Israel’s settler-colonial project. We went out en masse to protest, but we were severely beaten by PA police. Later, the PA intelligence followed us, harassed us in the streets, called our families and threatened them. Worse still, we were slandered on social media platforms as “traitors” working for a “foreign agenda” by PA loyalists.

In 2018, we went out to demonstrate against the complicity of the PA in the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which by now has rendered the strip unliveable. The PA had cut off the salary of employees in Gaza and cancelled medical referrals and financial assistance to hundreds of families in need. Because of their narrow partisan interests, two million Palestinians were suffering in unbearable living conditions. Our protest was again attacked brutally, we were beaten, dragged across the streets of Ramallah and arrested as we sought treatment for our injuries in the hospital. 

These are just a few examples of the PA’s systematic campaign to silence and placate the Palestinians in order to provide Israel with a “sense of security”. And this is not to say that Hamas is an innocent actor; it too has committed its fair share of repression against the Palestinian population in Gaza and has tried to silence criticism.

Palestinian leadership no more

Apart from clamping down on Palestinian dissent, the Palestinian leadership, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, has also sought to instrumentalise mass mobilisation for its short-sighted political goals.

Every time there is a declaration by an international body which threatens the PA’s position as a representative of the Palestinian people (albeit one they have not elected), we witness a series of speeches and statements by Palestinian officials calling for protests.

The PA and other Palestinian factions and political parties consider Palestinian protest to be a weapon they can use whenever they wish. They want mass mobilisation only when it suits them, not when it is in the best interest of the Palestinian people.

The problem is that this attitude, along with years of suppression of dissent and harassment of civil society has added another layer of repression – on top of the Israeli occupation – leaving Palestinians disenchanted and damaging their ability to effectively mobilise for their struggle. 

Over the years, many stopped seeing a reason to take to the streets because their protest would either be brutally cracked down on or co-opted by political forces they see as illegitimate.

It is no wonder then that when the PA called for mass mobilisation in the streets against the “deal of the century”, few turned up. Today, the PA is only able to mobilise those loyal to its political structures and its partisan arm – Fatah. To get a crowd in Ramallah, it has to bus people in from outside the city.

By now, many Palestinians have lost trust in the Palestinian leadership. Many know that the PA’s threats to cut ties with Israel’s intelligence agencies are empty ones. Last time it did that in 2017, it was found that 95 percent of security coordination with Israel was maintained.

But despite the political and moral bankruptcy of their leaders, Palestinians have not despaired. They continue their struggle for justice, rights, and the end of the Israeli occupation and apartheid. They continue to mobilise despite their leaders and their complicity with Israel.

The spirit of the Palestinian street is alive, but it can no longer be conjured by duplicitous political forces. It will only come out in defence of the legitimate struggle of the Palestinian people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.