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The Palestinian Authority’s skin-deep makeover

The Palestinian Authority’s skin-deep makeover

The Palestinian government’s latest PR drive looks like little more than a tactical attempt to dispel its ‘collaborator’ image

Rachel Shabi, 17 April 2010

It looks as though the Palestinian Authority (PA), sick of being slated as an Israeli puppet, is trying to reinvent itself as the People’s Authority.

The PA has upped support for some models of “popular resistance”, with increasing numbers of officials turning up to demonstrate at various events such as at the weekly anti-wall protests in the West Bank villages of Bil’in and Na’alin. Of course, Fatah officials have been attending weekly village protests at Bil’in for several years – but the authority as a body seems to be making its commitment more vocal of late.

Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Fatah-controlled West Bank, appeared at Qarawat Bani Hassan village, near Qalqilya, for the recent Land Day commemorations and photogenically worked a horse-drawn plough – intended as a statement in an area that is under Israeli control according to Oslo rules.

He will be one of the speakers at Bil’in’s fifth annual conference on popular resistance next week.

Meanwhile, the PA has launched a campaign to boycott settlement goods – “Your Conscience, Your Choice,” read the billboard ads – estimated by the Palestinian economics minister to represent between $200m and $500m (£130m-£325m) in West Bank sales. The authority has drafted laws to prevent Palestinian employment in those same illegal Israeli settlements. And it has just prohibited the sale of Israeli mobile SIMs and top-up cards, because the phone networks plant signal towers in West Bank settlements.

Could these recent measures earn the PA a surge of popular support? Many do praise the PA’s campaigns as positive, necessary steps – and the nonviolent direct action campaigners I spoke with welcomed the endorsement.

But at the same time, there’s a worry that this is just a tactic, not a strategy – and one likely to be pursued only as long as negotiations with Israel are at an impasse.

“For us, nonviolent direct action is a way of life,” says Bethlehem campaigner Ahmed al-Azah. “It is not just a trend that the PA can back now, and then put pressure on us later when the Americans persuade them to resume negotiations.”

Also, the PA’s appetite for protest seems picky: it was PA forces, for instance, that recently helped to disperse demonstrations in Bethlehem.

The PA has definite ideas about the right kind of protest – nothing that might be construed as support for Hamas, for instance, which explains why demonstrations against Israeli’s assault on Gaza last year were dispersed by PA forces.

But even this prescribed list of support-worthy demonstrations is too much for Israel, which has already asked the PA to drop support for popular protest and voiced concern over a “Fayyad intifada”.

Meanwhile, the campaign to ban settlement products is popular but some wonder: why stop there? “We should boycott all Israeli goods, just as they already boycott our products by not allowing them to pass, not even to Palestinian Jerusalem,” says Stop the Wall campaign coordinator Jamal Juma. Israeli and Palestinian authorities are bound by Oslo-era treaties that guarantee the free-flow of trade – but in practice that’s a one-way system: Israeli goods flood the Palestinian market, while Palestinian exports are blocked by checkpoints, closures and other restrictions.

Time and again, Palestinians have said that what they most want from the PA is for it to form a unity government with Hamas. They urge the PA not to honour asymmetrically past agreements with Israel, since that manifestly has not created statehood or any sense of freedom for Palestinians. And they repeatedly question why the PA should comply with Israel’s security demands when the Israeli army can still violate the PA’s scope by routinely raiding the West Bank and rounding up Palestinians.

“People don’t want just food or economic prosperity,” says one Palestinian campaigner, of the trade-off the PA appears to have made. “They want security – and the main threat is Israel.”

But the PA continues to accept the restraints that bind it, unable or unwilling to break them. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the graffiti in Nablus urges resistance to the “fake, American-imposed government”. By opting to be the preferred government of the Middle East quartet and Israel, by complying with all those accompanying, belittling and disempowering demands, the PA is backed into a corner – and it will take more than small tactical shifts to clean up its contaminated image.

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