The Slate Gist

The Palestinian Authority

When two Palestinian suicide bombers killed 15 Jews in a Jerusalem market last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu condemned Arafat as irresponsibly soft on terrorism, withheld millions of dollars Israel owed to Arafat’s government, and ordered the blockading of the Israeli-Palestinian border. The Israeli sanctions came the same week that 16 of Arafat’s ministers tendered their resignations. What is the PA? Why does everybody agree that it is in crisis? What is the future of the peace talks that established the PA?

The PA was born out of the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles. Israel promised the Palestine Liberation Organization–the self-styled Palestinian government-in-exile–that it would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories captured from Jordan and Egypt respectively in the 1967 Six Day War. The Oslo accord also established a timetable for negotiations that would lead to Israel’s departure from the territories. First on that timetable was a plan for Israel to leave Gaza City and Jericho (the cities with the largest Palestinian populations), then other major population centers, then the remainder of the two territories. Under the plan, an interim government organized by the PLO was established to assume control of internal security and civil administration–education, garbage collection, etc. The Oslo accord predicated progress on the PLO holding democratic elections. May 1999 is the deadline for an agreement over Jerusalem, a city that both parties claim as their capital and which neither wants to share. May 1999 is also the deadline for negotiations over full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as for what is ambiguously called the “final status” of security and border arrangements.

The first two stages of the withdrawal were completed before negotiations stalled in March after Israel broke ground for a housing project in Arab East Jerusalem. The PA controls the security and civil government of nine cities, in which about 90 percent of the 2.4 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip live. The PA has no jurisdiction over the more than 150,000 Jewish settlers living throughout the two territories. Their future will probably be decided by the “final status” negotiations.

Yasser Arafat’s cult of personality guaranteed that nobody would challenge his initial un-elected rule of the PA. Following the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, a coalition of disparate guerrilla groups, labor unions, and political parties gradually coalesced into a single opposition organization, the PLO. A trained engineer and longtime guerrilla, Arafat came to fame when he led a band of Palestinians to victory over the Israeli army in a minor battle at al-Karamah in 1968. He rose to the helm of the organization later that year. In 1974, the PLO renounced its support of terrorism, causing the Arab League, a council of the governments of 20 Arabic-speaking countries, to deem it the official representative of the Palestinians.

In his self-imposed exile in Tunisia, Arafat was joined by thousands of Palestinians. When he returned to Gaza and the West Bank in 1994, these “Tunisians” received the most important appointments within the new bureaucracy. Wealthy enough to have had the means to flee Israel in 1967, they began building villas and buying fancy cars upon their return, provoking resentment among the thousands of Palestinians who have lived for decades in U.N.-run refugee camps.

Recent studies corroborate widespread suspicions of PA corruption. In March, the PA’s comptroller concluded that millions of PA dollars had been siphoned off for private use by officials. Several ministers have been blamed for egregious abuses, leading the Palestinian Parliament to call for the resignation of the entire Cabinet. Last week all but two ministers agreed to step down, though many say it is unlikely they will ever actually do so. Arafat, notorious for his scruffiness, has a reputation for eschewing wealth, and he has not been accused of personal wrongdoing. However, his undemocratic attitude and predilection for political patronage are seen by many Palestinians as the ultimate root of the malfeasance.

Oslo makes Arafat dependent on Israel. He has much to gain from the peace process: more power and land for his government, for one. Also, under the accords, Israel annually gives the PA nearly $500 million in taxes collected from Palestinians who work and buy goods in Israel. This is the money that Israel withheld last week, and it accounts for more than two-thirds of the PA’s budget. The balance of the budget comes in the form of donations from foreign governments. Netanyahu’s government also is supporting several major public-works projects in PA territory, including the construction of an airport and seaport in Gaza. These projects are crucial to an independent Palestinian economy. Currently, more than 37,000 Palestinians commute daily to jobs in Israel.

The Israelis intend to withhold funds in the hopes that the PA will crack down on the Islamic militant terrorists. Specifically, the Israelis want Arafat to shut down Hamas, Arafat’s most powerful domestic opponent, which is purportedly responsible for the suicide bombing. Hamas has a strong organization. It controls mosques, schools, and a political party, all of which predate the organization of its terrorist arm in the late ‘80s. Most Palestinians reject Islamic fundamentalism. According to polls, only about 25 percent of Palestinians “support” Hamas, but they and Arafat alike avoid criticizing the group’s political leaders, as doing so would be considered kowtowing to the Jews.

Conditions are ripe for discontent. The Palestinian economy has deteriorated during the PA’s reign. Unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza is at 30 percent, up from 19 percent when Arafat took over. Palestinian per capita income has fallen to $1,400 per year, one-tenth of Israel’s. These economic casualties are Arafat’s most vocal critics. They support the argument that the peace process is a failed experiment that should be scrapped.

Yet Arafat remains popular–he won 88 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential elections, and recent polls estimate his public-approval ratings at about 65 percent. He quashes opponents with brutal force, arresting Islamic militants and left-wing secularists who oppose him and shuttering newspapers and television stations when they criticize him. Human-rights organizations roundly criticize the PA, citing the 14 prisoners who have been tortured to death in the last three years while in police custody.

The Palestinian Authority’s massive security apparatus–more than 80,000 strong–appears to be somewhat out of Arafat’s control. PA security has resisted Israeli demands that it take action against Hamas and refused, on occasion, to cooperate with the Israeli Defense Forces. When Israel began constructing apartment buildings in Arab East Jerusalem last March, PA security stopped relaying intelligence about the operations of Hamas’ terrorist wing. This breakdown of PA-Israeli cooperation is the basis for the Israeli complaint that Arafat is culpable for last week’s Jerusalem bombing. Last week Israel also ordered the PA to arrest one of its high-ranking police officers for planning an attack on a Jewish settlement.

Last year, Arafat cracked down on Hamas after a string of bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, arresting more than 1,200 suspected terrorists, destroying Hamas safe houses, and confiscating its weapons caches. Arafat is reluctant to reprise that police action, observers say, because he believes that the threat of terrorism is the only way to force Netanyahu to restart the peace talks. Meanwhile, Israeli closure of the PA’s borders further punishes the Palestinian economy. And Israel has threatened to send troops into PA-controlled cities and crack down on Hamas itself. Arafat’s aides say this would be akin to an act of war.