While domestic and international media are abuzz with talk of upcoming elections in both the United States and Israel, scant attention has been paid to the municipal elections set to take place in the West Bank on October 20. In fact, many Palestinians are themselves unmoved by the prospect of elections, which they view as unlikely to effect any real change in their daily lives. Yet this tepid response may itself be significant for what it says about the Palestinian street’s current disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose legitimacy has long since begun to sag under the weight of corruption, economic mismanagement, and its conspicuous failure to secure Palestinian statehood.
Indeed, the PA may be arriving at a juncture where its very existence is under threat. The most urgent concern is the precarious economic situation in the territories; according to the Associated Press, early September witnessed “the largest show of popular discontent with the [PA] in its 18-year existence,” as Palestinians took to the streets by the thousands to protest the rising cost of living and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Among the immediate drivers of protest are spiking fuel prices and an increase in the West Bank’s value added tax from 14.5 to 15.5 percent. These factors come against the backdrop of a Palestinian citizenry already struggling to make ends meet, with an unemployment rate of roughly 19 percent (28 percent among young people) and a minimum wage of about $400 per month (compared with $1,000 per month in Israel).
These conditions are unlikely to improve any time soon. The World Bank has predicted a PA budget deficit of $1.5 billion for 2012; only $1.14 billion in donor funding is currently on the table to help cover this, as external support for the PA has been on the wane. This number comes alongside a worrying slowdown in economic growth, with the West Bank’s growth for the first quarter (Q1) of 2012 forecast at 5.6 percent, over three points lower than Q1 in 2011. This drop in growth portends a deepening fiscal crisis that the World Bank warns can only be averted by increased donor support and significant easing of Israeli restrictions. Thus, while Fayyad managed to calm the waters by rolling back tax hikes and cutting the salaries of some top PA officials, more turmoil might well be on the horizon. Indeed, a September poll by the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that 76 percent of West Bankers expected the protest movement to continue and escalate.
Further economic distress, combined with the moribund status of the peace process, could spell trouble not just for Fayyad but also for Abbas and his administration in the West Bank. The 1993 Oslo Accords established the PA with the express purpose of representing Palestinians in negotiations with Israel and overseeing the transition to Palestinian independence—a transition that was to be completed by 1998—but statehood remains nowhere in sight. This past September 13 marked nineteen long, counterproductive years since Oslo’s signing; the occupation has deepened by the day, with the settler population in East Jerusalem and the territories ballooning from some 232,000 in 1991 to over half a million today. Meanwhile, the PA’s continued administrative and security cooperation with Israel lends it an air of complicity. If Oslo loses all semblance of credibility (a juncture that some argue has already arrived), the PA would essentially be stripped of its raison d’être. Palestinians might tolerate this if the PA could prove capable of providing some basic level of economic prosperity, but that is currently not the case. This raises the possibility that protests like those in early September could resurface and coalesce into a sustained, popular uprising, one that would pose a real threat to Abbas’ hold on the West Bank.
This looming challenge to the PA suggests that the Arab spring might finally be arriving in Palestine. The peculiarities of the Palestinian case, however, ensure that any Palestinian spring will be uniquely complex, with direct implications for Israelis and Palestinians alike; as one analyst put it, the prospect of a movement targeting the PA has piqued Israeli fears that such an uprising could “metastasize into a dreaded third intifada directed at the Israeli occupation.”
Several factors make it seem almost inevitable that an uprising against the Palestinian leadership would ultimately set its sights on the occupation. For one, the immediate catalyst of these protests has been the West Bank’s dire financial situation, and there can be no denying Israel’s role in undermining economic progress. To be sure, the PA’s incompetence and corruption share much of the blame for Palestine’s economic stagnation; as mentioned above, however, the World Bank report also highlights the fact that Israeli restrictions—particularly in Area C, the rural and agricultural land comprising 60 percent of the West Bank—play an integral role in stifling growth. Palestinians are not blind to this reality, as evidenced by the fact that some protests have demanded the abolition of the 1994 Paris Protocol, an economic annex to the Oslo Accords that many view as primarily beneficial to Israel. These demands are an early indication that any uprising triggered by economic hardship will necessarily implicate Israel as well as the PA.
At least equally important is the fact that Palestinians’ decades-old yearning for independent statehood continues to simmer beneath the surface. This is reflected by a growing number of voices calling for the cancellation of the Oslo Accords, and by PCPSR’s September poll; although a plurality of respondents viewed poverty and unemployment as the most dire problem facing Palestinians today, the occupation was not far behind (32 compared with 23 percent).
In fact, the Arab spring in 2011 triggered a groundswell in support for nonviolent resistance to the occupation; opinion polls found that sixty-one percent of Palestinians supported a movement in the vein of other Arab uprisings, and non-violent protest activity increased throughout the West Bank. In various ways, the PA itself played a critical role in preventing this movement from gaining traction. Not only did Palestinian leaders fail to provide much needed leadership, they made a concerted effort to keep a tight lid on protest activities for fear that they might escalate into violent clashes with Israeli security forces—or, worse still, turn their attention to the PA.
Massive Palestinian mobilization might well be sparked by a domestic catalyst like economic turmoil, but it is unlikely that the goals of such an uprising would remain localized. Should Abbas’ government find itself facing a truly existential threat, it is altogether possible that the PA might seek to salvage its legitimacy by taking a more proactive role in condemning and resisting the occupation, perhaps going so far as to make good on past threats to withdraw from the Oslo framework. If such a shift were to occur, there is no telling precisely what sort of movement would ensue. The Palestinian street could succeed in emulating nonviolent movements elsewhere in the Arab world, or it could descend into a cycle of bitter violence as occurred in 2000. Perhaps least likely, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships could be frightened into a negotiated agreement.
What seems relatively clear is that the Palestinian spring must eventually arrive; when it does, it will not be about economic hardship alone. Like the other Arab uprisings, this movement would be about human dignity and a shift towards democratic self-determination, two ideals that Palestinians have long sought in vain. Unlike other Arab peoples, however, Palestinians cannot achieve these by uniting against the regime of one tyrant, but instead must confront both their own corrupt, non-representative leadership and the deeply entrenched occupation to which that leadership is tied. If recent protests are any indication, this two-fold confrontation might not be long in coming.
Alex Simon is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.