Quite frequently the Israeli press is filled with reports and analyses of the impending crash and collapse of the Palestinian Authority. I often wonder where the authors of these reports get their information. In my experience very few of them, almost none in fact, have any real familiarity with the functioning of the PA on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s start with the basics: it is completely true that the PA has very limited authority. According to the Oslo agreements, the PA has “full control” over Area A – the “big” cities such as Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Kalkilya, Tulkarm, Jenin, etc. – which accounts for about 20% of the West Bank. The PA has civil but not security control over the built up areas of the hundreds of villages in the West Bank, known as Area B and accounting for about another 20%. Israel has full control over Area C where all of the Israeli settlements are located and where all of the open “development areas” – land owned by Palestinians – are found, and which accounts for over 60%.
Unlike any other government in the world, the PA has no control over its borders. In reality Israel has full control over everything – even in Area A. The only real control the PA has is what Israel allows it to control.
Water, electricity, currency, labor, imports and exports, movement and access – everything connected to daily life and governance is essentially controlled by Israel, or to be exact the Israeli army. The legal sovereign in the West Bank since June 1967 is the commander of the Israeli forces in Judea and Samaria, not the PA. The PA has no real sovereignty, even though the state of Palestine is recognized by 136 countries in the world.
Nonetheless, with all of the lack of real control detailed above, there is a functioning Palestinian government which enables relatively normal daily life for most Palestinians in the West Bank. There is a functioning (actually quite well functioning) education system. The healthcare system provides decent service in a system which is constantly expanding and improving, despite the lack of financial resources and the inability of the PA to pay all of its healthcare bills. There is a functioning system of law and order with a police force and a civil court system that works quite well. PA government ministries I have had direct contact and interaction with – the National Economy Ministry, Finance Ministry, Planning Ministry, Local Government Ministry, the Energy and Natural Resources Authority, the Water Authority, the Capital Market Authority, the Monetary Authority and more are filled with young, well trained and educated professionals.
The PA lacks money, even though its tax system is working. A big chunk of its finances come from VAT transfers from Israel and duties collected by Israel on its behalf (because it has no external border crossings under its control). There is a real financial crisis in the PA; Palestine, like many other countries, is poor.
However its poverty has little to do with corruption. In the past years I have been working on projects that will bring tens of millions of dollars of private-sector investments into Palestine and have never, not even once, have under-the-table cash payments ever been so much as hinted at. Everyone speaks about corruption and even most Palestinians believe that there is high-level corruption.
There is nepotism, no doubt about that – ministers and people with money and influence hire their relatives and people close to them. There is no doubt that the large companies in the hands of several important and wealthy families make sure most of the wealth in Palestine remains in their hands. But isn’t that the same in most countries? It certainly is in Israel.
There are problems regarding Palestine’s democracy.
It is true that there have not been elections since 2006 and that is a great flaw in Palestinian society, one which almost every Palestinian I know recognizes. They want change, they want reform and they want new officials elected. But they also know that the main challenge before them (outside of the occupation of course) is the internal political divide between the West Bank and Gaza, between Hamas and the PLO. Most Palestinians believe the best way to handle this division is by way of elections, but for that to happen there must be agreement between the sides and that has not happened yet.
Elections will probably be held next when President Abbas can no longer serve for whatever reason.
In terms of personal freedoms within the PA, setting aside those for which Israel and not it is responsible, in my opinion there is far more freedom (press, organization, political, speech, etc.) than in any other Arab country.
That does not mean that it is perfect – far from it.
It is true that the Palestinian government is bureaucratically heavy and inflated, with too many employees on the public dole. Most of the unnecessary paid employees in the public sector are in the security services. This is not by the direct design of the PA alone, but a direct outcome of Oslo and the pressure and money provided by the international community – mostly the United States and Israel. This is also not unusual in many poor countries – labor is created in the public sector to artificially keep unemployment low.
Investment in the private sector and especially direct foreign investment in Palestine is way too low. Part of that comes from the donor mentality that has been created and fostered whereby Palestinians have learned to expect projects to be supported by free money rather than having to risk investing their own money in expanding the economy.
Investment in Palestine is risky business, no doubt, but nonetheless anyone who drives around Palestinian cities and towns, not only Ramallah and Bethlehem, will see large numbers of new businesses opening up. Young Palestinians, increasingly more educated and trained in advanced sectors of the economy – hi-tech, engineering and business development – are starting up businesses, and small-business incubators are appearing, not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza.
The PA is far from where it should be and has many shortcomings. There is constantly room for improvement.
But most Israelis have no idea about the realities of Palestinian governance or the achievements that have been made by the Palestinians over the past years. Too many Palestinians, without a great deal of thinking, are in favor of shutting the PA down because of its failure to achieve statehood and freedom. That would be a huge mistake. There have been real achievements that need to be built on and it would be wise for Palestinians and Israelis to realize that.
The author is founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives.