Following weeks of violence and a crippling 11-day war in Gaza, the United States and the international community want to negotiate with Palestinians in order to restart peace efforts.
However, when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits on Tuesday, he will meet with Palestinian leaders who have been sidelined by demonstrations and outmanoeuvred by the militant Hamas group — and who seem to be more hated by Palestinians than at any point during their long rule.
The Palestinian Authority is no closer to statehood than it was when Mahmoud Abbas, now 85, was elected president after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2005, and Palestinians are even more fragmented. When it seemed that his splintering Fatah faction would face an embarrassing loss, Abbas called off the first elections in 15 years last month.
The PA, on the other hand, retains strong strategic relations with Israel and is strongly committed to the principle of a two-state solution. Internationally, this is seen as the best way to end the crisis, despite the fact that no meaningful peace negotiations have taken place in more than a decade.
The Islamic terrorist group Hamas claimed a landslide victory in the previous elections in 2006 and seemed to be on track to do so again. However, it rejects Israel’s right to live and is classified as a terrorist group. Protests in Jerusalem and elsewhere are largely devoid of leaders.
“The choice is to negotiate with Hamas or an extremely unrepresentative and defunct governing — kind of governing — authority with almost no legitimacy,” Tahani Mustafa, a researcher at the Crisis Group, an international think tank, said.
Israel and the United States seem to be following the second path, with officials in both countries stating that they intend to reinforce the PA at the detriment of Hamas, a strategy that has been tried and failed several times since Hamas took power in Gaza from Abbas’ forces in 2007.
Many Palestinians now see the PA as part of an ingrained and deeply intolerable regime of Israeli dominance that stretches well beyond the occupied West Bank, where the PA administers large population centres under Israeli influence.
Their rage erupted last month with demonstrations and clashes in Jerusalem that spread throughout the city, attracting Palestinian Israeli residents and sparking the Gaza conflict.
It was on full display during Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the volatile holy site at the centre of the recent protests, as thousands of Palestinian worshippers chanted “Dogs of the authority, get out!” in response to a sermon delivered by a PA-appointed mufti.
This was in stark contrast to the raucous rallies organised in support of Hamas and Mohammed Deif, the mysterious leader of the group’s armed wing, at Al-Aqsa and elsewhere.
Unlike the Palestinian Authority, which made harsh statements condemning Israel’s policing of Al-Aqsa and Jewish settlers’ efforts to expel thousands of families from a local neighbourhood, Deif issued an ultimatum. When time ran out, Hamas launched long-range missiles, disrupting an Israeli parade commemorating the group’s claims to the capital.
This sparked a disastrous Gaza war, killing over 250 civilians, the vast majority of whom were Palestinians, and wreaking havoc on the devastated region.
However, it also allowed Hamas to present itself as a cunning guardian of Jerusalem, to which all sides in the Middle East conflict have strong emotional relations, and to claim victory over the much more powerful Israel.
According to Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, support for Hamas has grown despite widespread dissatisfaction with the PA.
“At the end of the day,” he added, “Israel is the one that demolished these buildings.” “We endure as a result of Israeli colonisation, as a result of Israeli tyranny… The Palestinians will not hold Hamas responsible.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a former senior Palestinian official and veteran of the peace process who defected from the Palestinian leadership last year, blamed Israel in part for the PA’s demise, claiming that Israel “sabotaged” efforts at a two-state solution, including by widening settlements.
“The more this occurred, the more (Palestinian leaders) became seen to be powerless in the face of Israeli violations,” she added. “Israel has acted with complete impunity to make it more difficult for Palestinians.”
Israel claims that it has made several plans for a Palestinian state in the majority of the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem — areas it won in the 1967 war — that have been refused over the years. The Palestinians, negotiating from a point of vulnerability, said that the concessions were insufficient.
According to Khalil Shikaki, a renowned pollster who has been surveying Palestinian public opinion for more than two decades, Hamas’ support usually increases during times of conflict before returning to normal when things calm down. However, he claims that the Palestinian Authority’s credibility problem is legitimate.
“The most recent war between Israel and Hamas has shown that the emperor is completely naked,” he added.
Shikaki claims that Hamas was able to prove that it protected Jerusalem because no one else — not Abbas, Arab nations, nor the international community — was willing to do so.
“In terms of success, this storey is simply brilliant, and Hamas got away with it because Abbas has zero prestige among Palestinians,” he said.
That won’t stop Abbas from inviting Blinken to the presidential palace in Ramallah this week as the Palestinian king, despite the fact that he governs less than 40% of the West Bank and his presidential mandate expired more than a decade ago. His forces have no foothold in Gaza and are unlikely to return anytime soon now that the elections have been cancelled.
As a result, it is largely anticipated that any reconstruction funds will be channelled into the United Nations and Qatar. As one of the most substantive Israeli-Palestinian agreements signed in recent memory, they were already sending assistance to Gaza and carrying out humanitarian initiatives there.