As Gaza war rages, West Bank officials see a path toward peace

Amid calls for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, an energized Palestinian Authority is preparing for the day after.

With the United States and Europe giving the Palestinians the most diplomatic attention in a decade, officials in Ramallah see a rare opportunity to revive a moribund peace process, reverse the fortunes of an unpopular and distrusted Authority (PA), and bring Palestinians closer to statehood.

“Despite all the difficulties, this horrendous war offers a promising opening,” says Mohammed Hourani, a former Palestinian diplomat and a member of the revolutionary council for Fatah, the dominant faction in the PA. “We can turn this opening into a historic opportunity for our people if we act wisely and act fast.”

Breaking weeks of silence, PA President Mahmoud Abbas spelled out the Authority’s vision to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah Saturday. The West Bank-based government would only “fully assume our responsibilities within the framework of a comprehensive political solution that includes all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip,” said Mr. Abbas, according to the Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

The PA’s priorities: a Gaza cease-fire, opening of humanitarian corridors, and a wider political settlement under which the Authority would return to Gaza, which it governed from 1995 to 2007.

PA officials are holding up the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas as proof that attempts at regional peace through Arab-Israeli normalization agreements that circumvented the Palestinians have failed, and that only Palestinian statehood could ensure “stability, security, and peace for Israel and the region.”

But they say they are not willing to come in immediately and “clean up Israel’s mess.”

“We call for a tangible mechanism with a set time frame that leads to an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state,” says Social Development Minister Ahmed Majdalani, a PLO Executive Committee member. “But no Palestinian organization or faction will return to Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank.”

A deal the PA can sell

The PA, working alongside Jordan and Egypt, envisions an international peace conference held by the United Nations, not under the U.S., which officials say the Authority has lost trust in as a mediator.

Negotiations are even underway with Saudi Arabia to offer normalized ties to Israel as part of a wider deal that would strengthen this local initiative. Disrupting the U.S.-backed Saudi-Israel normalization talks is thought to have been one target of the Oct. 7 attack.

Talks are gaining traction among the U.S., European Union, and U.N. over a post-Hamas governing body with proposals for a Palestinian authority – Palestinian civil society representatives, not necessarily the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah. And that is jolting Palestinian diplomats into overdrive to ensure the Authority is not replaced by a new entity in Gaza.

Analysts say the PA is pushing for Israeli concessions in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and for commitments to statehood that it can legitimately sell to a suspicious public.

“The Authority needs something to show to the people that they are not agents of Israel and that all these martyrs and lives lost in Gaza were not in vain,” says analyst Ibrahim Masri. “Otherwise they will be risking their lives, not just their political career.”

In discussions with the U.S., the EU, and Arab states, the PA is also warning: Without a political settlement, more violence may come.

“If Israel continues this violence without offering a political horizon, I believe the explosion in the West Bank will be more violent and bloody” than Oct. 7, warned Mr. Majdalani.

As diplomats work, analysts say, Mr. Abbas has chosen to lie low and wait, believing that the longer the war drags on, the more Hamas will be weakened and the greater the international pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to enter a peace process.

Hamas conundrum

Yet while the PA and Fatah push for a relaunched peace process, a nagging question remains: What to do with Hamas?

There is no love lost between the secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas.

Hamas seized Gaza and expelled Fatah from the strip in 2007 amid infighting over contested elections that officials in Ramallah refer to as a “coup,” in which Hamas threw Fatah members from rooftops.

From 2007 to 2022, reconciliation efforts failed.

Officials say Hamas’ Islamist ideology will survive in some form, and its supporters will remain “part of the Palestinian political and social fabric.”

Senior Fatah officials worry that if the PA and Fatah entered immediately into a postwar Gaza, they would face a “bloodbath” and “series of assassinations” by an insurgency of Hamas remnants.

Despite the concerns over a hasty Gaza return, there is also rising confidence within the PA that Hamas will come out of the war severely weakened, isolated, and fractured – allowing the PA to impose conditions on the remnants of Hamas’ political wing or stamp it out as an organized movement altogether.

Unable to publicly criticize Hamas due to public outrage, and to avoid clouding calls for a cease-fire, officials say privately they see the war as a final indictment of Hamas’ unilateral militant approach and reliance on Hezbollah and Iran.

One can detect more than a hint of Palestinian schadenfreude.

“Hamas, as a movement as we know it, is finished,” says one PA official who preferred to remain unnamed. “They can come back to the umbrella of the PLO by accepting the PLO agenda, a two-state solution on 1967 lines, and renounce violence, or they can let the door of history hit their backs on their way out.”

The unpopular PA

Waiting is also risky for the PA and Mr. Abbas.

Should Hamas continue to bog down the Israeli military, its support among the Palestinian people could rise.

While Mr. Abbas and the PA are suddenly sought after by the international community, their support is at an all-time low among an outraged population in the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas has yet to deliver a speech or address the Palestinian public since the outbreak of the conflict.

Israeli settler attacks and military operations in the West Bank have killed 117 people and displaced 1,000 Palestinians from their homes since Oct. 7, PA officials say, further exposing Mr. Abbas and the PA as unable or unwilling to protect citizens.

For many people on the street in Ramallah and Jericho they are, simply, “traitors.”

“Arab countries and protesters in London and New York are taking stronger stances than the Palestinian president,” says Mohammed, a vendor. “This crisis has exposed how the Authority has no authority and is not Palestinian.”

“We know why the PA is in the West Bank, and it is the same reason they want to put it in Gaza: It is a client for Israel and America and it keeps security and their interests.”

Armed clashes have erupted between citizens and PA forces in Jenin, Nablus, and Bethlehem.

“There was little legitimacy and popularity for Abu Mazen [Mr. Abbas] and the PA before the war,” says analyst Mr. Masri. “Now there is zero legitimacy or popularity – but there is no clear alternative.”

To prove its effectiveness as a partner for the West and security partner for Israel, since Oct. 7 the Authority has facilitated an unprecedented wave of arrests across West Bank towns and villages. It provided intelligence allowing Israeli forces to arrest 1,900 Hamas members and suspected sympathizers, would-be militants, and citizens who call for resistance on social media.

Diplomatic sources say the crackdown has impressed Washington and EU officials, who are prodding Israel to strengthen the PA.

It has also fanned the flames of West Bankers’ ire.

“The Authority is facilitating the occupation’s intrusion into every detail of our lives,” says one Ramallah resident whose apartment was stormed by Shin Beit in search of a suspect last week. “If the Authority goes back to Gaza, it will be an Israeli occupation under a different flag.”

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