The Palestinian Authority – devoid of any authority

The Oslo Accords, initially intended to create Palestinian self-government, have in fact left them with autonomous pockets that only reinforce Israel’s rule.

By Amira Hass
Palestinians for Dignity protesting in Ramallah, with a permit from police.
Palestinians for Dignity protesting in Ramallah, with a permit from police.  Photo by Amira Hass

“Everything Will Be Fine,” the enjoyable program broadcast by Army Radio, has a younger relation over at the Voice of Palestine: At “Good Morning Palestine,” the microphone is sometimes open to regular citizens with complaints about various institutions of the Palestinian bureaucracy. As at “Everything Will Be Fine,” the program hosts find it easier than regular people to locate the phone number of whoever is in charge and extract a promise that the matter under discussion will be taken care of. For example, Saturday morning, an officer in the Hebron police was put on the line to answer allegations made by a Yatta resident (who declined to identify himself ) that the Palestinian police are shirking their duty and are slow to intervene in internal conflicts of the large town. The complainant didn’t want to hear about Area A and Area C and interrupted the officer several times.

Another radio program provides airtime to family members of people imprisoned in Israel. It is a particularly important show for prisoners whose parents, wives and children aren’t allowed to visit them for obscure, unspecified “security reasons.” Some relatives make do with a brief, “How are you, habibi? We’re all fine, don’t worry about us. We hope you’re taking care of yourself and your health, and that you’ll be released soon – you and all the other prisoners.” Others go on at length, especially the women. A mother will tell her son that she sent him money for snacks or that his younger brother is out of control and that she’s worried. She’ll speak as if the conversation weren’t one-way and part of a broadcast to which lots of people are listening – cab drivers, their passengers, store clerks and several hundred other prisoners.

Speaking of cabs: As a result of a string of fatal traffic accidents involving taxi drivers, the Palestinian Ministry of Transportation has issued an order limiting the speed of all public transportation vehicles on intercity roads to 90 kilometers per hour. From now on, all new cabs will be modified mechanically to disable higher speeds.

Between a talk show and a news edition, one may hear a public service announcement encouraging people to pay off their debts to the electric company because non-payment strengthens the occupation. A recent installment of “Women’s Voices” was dedicated to an extensive discussion of the phenomenon of men preventing their ex-wives from seeing their children, and of the legal means available to women to fight this injustice.

Speaking of injustices: The Coalition for Palestinian Human Rights Organizations has criticized unnamed figures in the office of President Mahmoud Abbas who, according to the coalition, ordered the police to violently suppress demonstrations held two months ago by the new group Palestinians for Dignity. The youths were protesting the invitation extended to Shaul Mofaz to meet with Abu Mazen. But the criticism had its impact. Two weeks ago, the police allowed the group to march as far as the Muqata wall in Ramallah and shout, without interference, “Traitor, traitor, our government is a traitor.”

What is the common denominator of these anecdotes? What is this compilation doing here? It’s my way of addressing an assertion made in the book, “The Bureaucracy of the Occupation: The Regime of Movement Permits 2000-2006,” by attorney Yael Barda, recently published by the United Kibbutz Movement and Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute. The book is based on her master’s thesis in the sociology and anthropology department at Tel Aviv University. The research started with Barda’s stubborn slog through the trenches while representing Palestinian laborers who got lost in the intentionally repressive labyrinth of official red tape. Barda argues against the conclusion drawn by Neve Gordon in his book, “Israel’s Occupation” (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008 ), which she summarizes as follows: “Since the Oslo Accords, the force used against the Palestinians has changed and is now a sovereign power employing legal control by means of the law and policing forces; it does not intervene in civil decisions and does not distinguish between those who oppose the occupation and those who accept it …”

By contrast, Barda’s conclusion is as follows: “After the administrative and regional separation enacted as a result of the Oslo Accords, control over the lives of the Palestinians and interference in their civilian matters did not decrease; on the contrary, it grew.” Barda has accompanied hundreds of laborers on their Via Dolorosa to an entrance permit to Israel and has interviewed many functionaries within the system. That is how she has learned up close how invasive, non-transparent and unsupervised the Israeli authorities are – from the Shin Bet security service to the Supreme Court – that dominate the lives of Palestinians seeking to realize their right to freedom of movement, and come up against walls of concrete, orders and injunctions.

I have not read Gordon’s book, but I assume he saw the range of prohibitions in force during the period of the direct occupation: on construction, reading and writing, unionizing and broadcasting opinions, plays and movies, on planting and seeding. The people in charge in the civilian offices were Israeli bureaucrats/military personnel. They carefully parceled out permits to hook up a telephone line here or build another floor there, while putting petitioners through a gauntlet of depressing humiliations. The offensive, intentional neglect of infrastructure was always a key part of the mechanism of dominating the natives. Even getting a driver’s license was a grind through the same mechanism. The Shin Bet used collaborators even before the ban on freedom of movement that started in 1991, preceding the implementation of Oslo by three years. It’s enough to think about the terrifying presence of the Border Police, Special Patrol Units and National Insurance Institute inspectors in East Jerusalem neighborhood and villages, turned into choking pockets of poverty by the Israeli government, in order to remember the potential of direct control and its predatory nature. It’s enough to remember Area C in which Israel will not allow an old Palestinian community to build toilets or install a solar energy system.

Area C, the 61-62 percent of the West Bank over which the Oslo Accords give Israel full authority, surrounds pockets of Palestinian self-rule in which direct Israeli control over civilian matters has, in fact, become very tenuous despite frequent military incursions, Israel’s authority to arrest any Palestinian at any time, and restrictions on movement. In these pockets, autonomous moments and spaces of a civilian community are created and experienced despite the huge shadow cast by the ever-present occupation. People get used to the internal logic of these pockets. Is the normality only a mirage? A self-delusion? No. The regime created is a confusing hybrid of military-colonial state of emergency and civilian autonomy. The duality and all its contradictions are the glue that makes it hard to undo what there is, i.e. the Palestinian Authority.

This, too, is the genius of the authors of Oslo, who formulated a vague business contract open to opposing interpretations. And since the interpretation of the strong wins, we’re left with autonomous pockets that only reinforce Israel’s rule.


1 Comment

  1. Blake said,

    September 24, 2012 at 21:22

    Forget Area C and all that bull. Return it all to being how it was, a country called Palestine

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