The Palestinian Authority’s shrinking influence in the West Bank

Long before the war between Israel and Hamas erupted on October 7, the inhabitants of Zanuta, a Palestinian village in the arid hills of the occupied West Bank, had grown used to attacks by Jewish settlers. But in the weeks after the outbreak of the war, the violence hit such levels that the 140 villagers decided they had no option but to leave.

“Life became hell,” says Faris Samamri, a 57-year-old farmer who fled to nearby Shuweika, recounting how settlers beat members of the isolated herding community, burst their water tanks, blocked their roads, and terrorised their livestock. “We were not able to live. We were not able to sleep. The settlers were harassing us in the morning and attacking us in the evening. That is not a life.”

The displacement of Zanuta’s residents was part of a wave of upheaval that has rolled through the West Bank — which Palestinians seek as the heart of a future state, but which Israel has occupied for 57 years — since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.

As the eyes of the world have been focused on the devastation in Gaza, the West Bank has been hit by a combination of surging settler violence, escalating military raids, intensified settlement expansion, and stifling economic pressure whose consequences are likely to be felt for years to come. Together, the moves have accelerated the decades-long entrenchment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — which most countries consider illegal.

The result has been to further undermine the tottering Palestinian Authority — which exercises limited self-government in the territory — just as the international community is pushing for it to administer both the West Bank and Gaza once the war between Israel and Hamas is over.

For policymakers in the US, the Arab world and Europe, a reformed PA is the obvious institution to fill the political vacuum in Gaza and as they seek to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The divided West Bank

But among Palestinians, faith in the PA — which was created in the 1990s as a stepping stone to a Palestinian state — has withered. At the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, widely seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history, contains ultranationalist settlers who have openly threatened to engineer its collapse, and annex the West Bank.

“Israel today is not the Israel we negotiated and reached agreements with 30 years ago. It is not really interested in a political entity on our side. That’s why they put this huge pressure on the PA,” says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian lecturer at Birzeit University. “By closing any political horizon, by the incredible increase in settlement expansion, settler attacks and incursions, they have made the PA something irrelevant in the eyes of the Palestinian public.”

Even the PA’s supporters admit some of its problems are homegrown. Headed by octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas, who has been president since 2005, it has not held parliamentary or presidential elections since 2006 — when Abbas’s Fatah party, which dominates the PA, lost to Hamas — and is viewed by many Palestinians as authoritarian, out of touch, and corrupt.

While Abbas’s commitment to a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made him the international community’s main Palestinian interlocutor for two decades, after years without progress, many Palestinians see the PA as a facilitator of Israel’s occupation.

A poll last year found for the first time that most Palestinians thought the PA’s dissolution would be in their interest. The PA’s position has only grown more uncomfortable since Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel, with Abbas conspicuously absent for much of the war as he struggles with the competing forces of popular fury over Israel’s ferocious assault on Gaza and pressure to prevent an explosion in the West Bank, where polls suggest the war has driven Hamas’s popularity far above that of his Fatah faction.

“The world understands it can’t ignore the Palestinian issue,” says one former PA official. “But we don’t have a Palestinian side with the legitimacy or the vision to take advantage.”

Armed Israeli settlers gather on a hill overlooking the village of Mughayir near Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank
Armed Israeli settlers gather on a hill overlooking the village of al-Mughayyir in April. According to the UN, nearly 1,400 Palestinians have been displaced by settler violence since the start of the Gaza war © Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

Yet the PA has also been systematically undermined by successive Israeli governments, the former official adds, with Netanyahu’s coalition with ultrareligious and extreme-right groups the most hostile of all. “The only point on the Israeli agenda is to prevent a Palestinian state,” he says.

Indeed, ultranationalists in Netanyahu’s cabinet make little effort to hide such ambitions. Last month, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich — who also holds a post in the defence ministry with wide powers over civilian issues in the West Bank — was recorded telling settlers he was quietly making changes to how the territory is run, including shifting powers from the military to civilian officials, that would allow Israel to entrench its control without being accused of annexation.

“We came to settle the land, to build it, and to prevent its division and the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said, according to a recording obtained by Peace Now, an Israeli NGO.

Even before October 7, the stance of ministers such as Smotrich had emboldened settlers. After Netanyahu’s coalition took office in late 2022, settler violence jumped. When the war in Gaza erupted after October 7, the situation deteriorated further. Since then, the UN has logged 1,084 settler attacks on Palestinians, and although the violence has ebbed from its peak, it continues to flare.

In recent days, settlers have repeatedly attacked Umm al-Kheir and other villages in Masafer Yatta in the south of the West Bank, injuring at least 27 Palestinians, according to activists. In one of the worst incidents this year, settlers rampaged through a dozen communities near Ramallah after a 14-year-old settler was killed in what the Israeli military called a “terrorist attack”. In al-Mughayyir, one Palestinian was killed and 72 were injured as hundreds of settlers descended on the town, firing shots, hurling rocks, and torching cars and buildings, according to the mayor, Amin Abu Alia. The assault damaged 50 properties, he added, with 27 set ablaze.

Among the buildings attacked was the home of Abdelatif Abu Alia, whose relative Jihad Abu Alia was shot dead in the violence. Days later, bullet holes were still visible in the walls of the house, and the shells of burnt-out cars lay stranded among the olive trees outside his gate.

Sheep grazing on a hillside
A settler grazes his flock in the Palestinian village of Zanuta, which was abandoned in October after it was repeatedly attacked © Quique Kierszenbaum
Sheep pass burnout cars in a village
Cars and buildings were torched during a settler attack on al-Mughayyir in April, in which one Palestinian was killed and 72 injured © Quique Kierszenbaum

“[The violence] has become much worse,” he says. “It’s not just the bigger number of settlers — at the beginning maybe it was dozens; now it’s hundreds . . . They also blocked the roads so nobody could come to help us. This is the problem. They became more and more brutal.”

Settler representatives dismiss accusations of violence as antisemitism. Simcha Rothman, a settler and MP from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, says settler violence is a “non-issue”.

“It does not exist. It’s a myth. It’s a blood libel,” he says.

But others say it is part of a broader attempt to drive Palestinians off their land. According to the UN, since the start of the war 1,392 Palestinians in 29 Bedouin and herding communities have been displaced by settler violence and access restrictions.

“This is a very thought-through and systematic series of actions, which are taken on a daily basis . . . to facilitate new de facto borders in the West Bank,” says Dror Etkes, founder of Kerem Navot, an Israeli NGO. “[The displacements] are completely changing the situation on the ground, and I think we’ll see more.”

The violence from settlers — many of whom have been mobilised since October 7 — has been accompanied by a sharp escalation in the raids the Israeli military has been conducting in the West Bank since a wave of attacks by Palestinians in 2022.

Israeli officials say the raids are to stop safe havens for militants emerging in areas where the PA no longer functions. But the Palestinian death toll has hit levels unseen for 20 years. According to the UN, the Israeli military has killed 536 Palestinians in the West Bank since October 7. Settlers have killed 11 Palestinians, and settlers or the military have killed another six. In the same period, Palestinians have killed 14 Israelis in the territory, including five settlers and nine soldiers, and eight Israelis in Israel.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, says the situation is akin to a “silent war”, recalling the damage he witnessed during a visit to Tulkarem in the aftermath of an Israeli raid. “It looked like a mini conflict zone, because of the destruction of the houses . . . the destruction of the asphalt, the road, the pipes,” he says.

There is also mounting economic pressure. In the wake of Hamas’s attack, Israel stopped the roughly 160,000 West Bank Palestinians who worked in Israel before the war from entering. Officials say the measure was necessary to thwart attacks. But, in combination with sweeping restrictions on movement within the West Bank, it has taken a crushing toll on the territory’s economy. Output in the first quarter of 2024 was 25 per cent lower than a year earlier, and those who used to work in Israel have been particularly hard hit.

Among them is Samamri’s relative Ismail, who previously worked for an Israeli removal company. In Israel, he could earn Shk400 per day, he says, four times the going rate in the West Bank. But since the war, he has not even been able to find work at home. “I have kids, they need milk, they need food . . . [But] I don’t have money to go to the shop,” he says. “Before I bought milk for the baby. Now I give him milk from the goat. The doctor says it’s not good. But I can’t afford anything else.”

Some observers fear the pressure could eventually trigger an eruption akin to the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, of the early 2000s. “The Israelis think if they put pressure on the Palestinians, they will settle for less,” says an Arab diplomat. “But they ignore a very important element: the natural desire of human beings for dignity . . . What makes Palestinians really angry is the humiliation, the loss of dignity.”

So far, the eruption has not occurred. But the mounting pressures on Palestinians are compounding disillusionment with the PA, just as the US and other countries are arguing that after the war, the governance of the West Bank and Gaza should be reunited under a “revitalised” PA.

In an attempt to show its openness to reform, the PA in March formed a new government, run by economist Mohammad Mustafa. But the appointment of someone so closely associated with Abbas left Arab states disappointed and frustrated, according to a second Arab diplomat, as they did not see it as a signal of intent to make genuine reforms. Polls suggest most Palestinians also doubt the changes will reboot the PA. “The PA can’t do anything,” says Ismail Samamri. “They can’t even pay salaries . . . When the settlers are attacking us and we tell [the PA], they can’t protect us.”

Armed Israeli solders and Palestinians in Hebron
Israeli forces deployed in Hebron in the West Bank in April to protect settlers during a raid of the Palestinian city © Amer Shallodi/Anadolu/Getty Images

The PA has been further weakened by measures targeting its finances. Even before the war, Israel partially withheld customs revenues it collects on the PA’s behalf. After October 7, Smotrich increased the deductions by Shk275mn ($75mn) per month to 60 per cent of the revenues Israel is meant to transfer, arguing this sum would have paid salaries and pensions for PA officials in Gaza, which the PA governed along with parts of the West Bank until it was ousted by Hamas in 2007.

In May, he went further, freezing the transfers entirely after several European countries recognised Palestine, and the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor sought arrest warrants against Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant over the war in Gaza. Last week, Smotrich finally allowed a portion to be paid. But he has called on Netanyahu to annex the entire West Bank if Palestinians do not drop their support for the ICC case and their push for international recognition of Palestine.

For many Palestinian and international observers, however, a slow-motion annexation has been under way for years, with the roughly 150 Israeli settlements in the West Bank now housing 500,000 people. And in recent days, the Israeli government has issued another burst of pro-settler decisions.

Last week, it advanced plans for thousands of new housing units in existing settlements. Last month, the security cabinet approved the legalisation of five settlement outposts, some deep in the West Bank, that even Israel hitherto deemed illegal. The government has also declared more than 23,000 dunams (1,000 dunams is equivalent to 1 sq km) of the West Bank “state land”, the biggest such seizure since the 1990s. The manoeuvre is almost always a prelude to the land being handed to settlers: according to Peace Now, 99.76 per cent of state land in the West Bank previously allocated for use went to Israelis.

“When you look at all this, you see a massive intention to advance the de facto annexation of a bigger part of the West Bank,” says Etkes, who estimates settler violence, settlement expansion, access restrictions, and land seizures have cut Palestinians off from between 200,000 and 300,000 dunams since October 7. “They are concentrating on areas deliberately chosen to convey the message there will be no Palestinian state, nowhere, in any of the West Bank.”

Men in suits sitting around a cabinet table
President Mahmoud Abbas, centre, chairs the first cabinet meeting of the new Palestinian government, led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa, in March © Palestinian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu/Getty Images
 José Manuel Albares and Mohammad Mustafa walk with their entourages
Mustafa, second from right, met José Manuel Albares, Spain’s foreign minister, second from left, in Brussels in May, shortly before Madrid formally recognised Palestine © Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP/Getty Images

In a belated attempt to bolster the PA, several countries, including Spain, Ireland and Norway, formally recognised Palestine earlier this year. Others including the US, UK, France and Canada have begun imposing sanctions on violent settlers for the first time, in a move that has underlined their mounting anger at Netanyahu’s failure to rein the settlers in. But Palestinians say the moves are too little, too late.

“You can bring the best governors to Palestine and they’re going to fail. And the reason is the PA’s structure is a failure,” says Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Abbas. “They have no sovereignty. They don’t have their own currency. They don’t control their airspace. They don’t control their natural resources. They don’t control imports and exports . . . It’s never going to work.”

Indeed, for many West Bank Palestinians, the dream of statehood had evaporated long before the war. And after the upheavals of the last nine months, their ambitions are far more local. “When I go up on the mountain and see Zanuta, I start crying. When my wife goes, she cries too,” says Faris Samamri, sitting in a sparse outhouse in his exile in Shuweika. “My land is there. I was born there. I just want to be able to go back.”

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