A potential path to restoring Palestinian Authority rule in Gaza

Middle East Blinken 110523 Reuters Jonathan Ernst

As hostilities persist between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, efforts to formulate a definitive strategy for the enclave’s future are mired in complexity. Numerous states are advocating for advancements toward a two-state resolution. In the interim, there is a global consensus, particularly emphasized by the United States, on an initial agreement that the Palestinian Authority (PA) should assume governance over Gaza after Israel’s military actions against Hamas end.

The Israeli government, however, staunchly opposes the idea of PA governance in Gaza. Domestic political dynamics within Israel significantly influence this position — many right-wing politicians have been working to delegitimize the PA for years. But this is not solely about political leaning. There is broad agreement across the Israeli political spectrum regarding the PA’s support for terrorism.

Over the last 20 years, the PA has established a tripartite operational framework. First, there is a security apparatus dedicated to collaborating with Israel on security matters, specifically, yet often sporadically, targeting terrorism and managing internal dissent. Secondly, the PA has developed a propaganda and educational apparatus committed to preserving its foundational anti-Zionist ideology. Lastly, there is a substantial patronage network centered around the Martyrs Fund — called “Pay for Slay” by Western critics — that disburses significant welfare payments to the families of Palestinians who have been incarcerated or killed in relation to the Israeli occupation, whether during protests or in the act of committing terror.

These latter two components contribute significantly to Israeli distrust of the Palestinian Authority. The educational and propaganda system perpetuates a culture that valorizes terrorism, martyrdom and antisemitism, while the Martyrs Fund incentivizes acts of terror through financial rewards. The coexistence and functioning of these educational and financial systems not only sustain the ongoing conflict with Israel but also foster radicalism within Palestinian society, and the complex matrix of ideological indoctrination and financial encouragement plays a crucial role in the perpetuation of hostilities and extremist sentiments.

Israeli security officials and American diplomats often highlight the substantial benefits of security coordination with the PA. But the PA’s failure to implement necessary reforms in critical areas continue to obstruct any potential shift in the dynamics of Israeli-PA relations.

The PA’s persistent failure to enact substantial changes is a result of two primary factors: the division, nearly a civil war, between the PA and Hamas, and the PA’s plummeting popularity among Palestinians due to widespread financial and political corruption. If Israel succeeds in its objective to dismantle Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza, it might alleviate the first factor. However, the PA’s unpopularity due to corruption would remain unresolved.

A recent confidential meeting in Riyadh involving the PA, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, featured the Arab states urging the PA to undertake significant political and financial reforms deemed crucial for facilitating a post-war transition and a potential peace process. Whether the Arab states can persuade the PA to engage in meaningful reforms remains a significant challenge. But irrespective of the outcome of these efforts, Israel is unlikely to earnestly contemplate enabling the restoration of PA governance in Gaza without first addressing its principal concerns: the Martyrs Fund and the nature of Palestinian education.

The outright termination of the Martyrs Fund in its current state is presently impossible and could spark intense instability in the West Bank. A recent poll indicated at least 60 percent of West Bank Palestinians want to see the PA dismantled as it currently exists, and huge swaths of the Palestinian public support violent resistance, including at least 70 percent supporting the Oct. 7 attacks. Moreover, the patronage system has been so thoroughly integrated into Palestinian social, economic and political life that it amounts to a social contract and a central institution of the PA’s political legitimacy. Many young Palestinian men committed murderous acts of terror for which they paid with their life or their freedom based on the promise that the PA was going to provide for their families. In 2016, it was reported that the Fund supported 35,000 Palestinian families.

While the fund is morally reprehensible, canceling it is likely to destabilize the PA and the West Bank beyond remedy. The best solution might be for the Fund to freeze all new entitlements indefinitely — at least for those who die or are incarcerated with active involvement in acts of outright violence — while remaining able to honor past commitments, ensuring the cessation of future incentives to terrorism while maintaining internal stability. Afterward, a new financial office should be established to allocate welfare payments for innocent victims of the conflict who may have lost their lives in incidents unrelated to acts of terrorism or armed resistance. This strategy balances the need for reform with the necessity of maintaining stability.

The proposal to significantly reform the Martyrs Fund is an essential but not a standalone solution to guide the Palestinian Authority and Israel beyond the ramifications of the events of Oct. 7. Other major overhauls are needed, including a systematic revamping and deradicalization of the PA’s education systems. The proposed adjustment to the Martyrs Funds future is pivotal, as it addresses legitimate concerns regarding the incentivization of terrorism through financial rewards.

For any Israeli administration, the political feasibility of granting substantial concessions to the PA, crucial for restoring its sovereignty in Gaza, is contingent upon the cessation of the PA’s previous practices. Although establishing a viable framework for PA governance in Gaza might seem like a distant goal, initiating this reform could serve as the basis for constructive dialogue and compromise. Such discourse could pave the way for a pragmatic agreement that serves the interests of Israelis and Palestinians and offers a progressive path for all parties involved.

Eitan Charnoff is CEO of Potomac Strategy, a consultancy advising governments, NGOs and the private sector primarily on MENA region geopolitics, security and cooperation. Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is a Washington-based analyst and writer specializing in Arab and Middle Eastern politics.

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