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The Palestinian Authority is promising change. Many Palestinians say it's not enough

Inside a cafe in the Al Ama'ari refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, men huddle around a wooden stove for warmth in front of a large mural of photographs from 1948, when many Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes.
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Inside a cafe in the Al Ama'ari refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, men huddle around a wooden stove for warmth in front of a large mural of photographs from 1948, when many Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — If the Palestinian Authority is to someday play a role in the governance of a post-war Gaza, then the resignation announced Monday by the body's prime minister could be seen as an important first step.

Following long-time calls for reform inside the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that he was tendering the resignation of his cabinet. He will remain as head of a caretaker government until a new prime minister is announced.

It's a move that U.S. officials hope will help convince Israel that the Palestinian Authority can have a future in Gaza. But convincing Palestinians? That might be even more of a challenge.

The Palestinian Authority was created as part of the Oslo Accords, a landmark set of agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1990s. At the time, the authority was seen as the government in waiting for a future Palestinian state. It was given control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, but after losing Gaza to Hamas in fighting in 2007, it is now only in charge of about 40% of the occupied West Bank — the rest is under Israeli control.

Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority speaks at the government's weekly meeting in Ramallah on Monday and announces his resignation.
Issam Rimawi / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority speaks at the government's weekly meeting in Ramallah on Monday and announces his resignation.

The group is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, regularly accused of corruption and dysfunction, and it is blamed for failing to maintain security in parts of the West Bank – particularly in areas where Israeli settlements have been growing.

In all, more than 60% of Palestinians want the body dissolved, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and 92% want the organization's president, Mahmoud Abbas, to step down. Abbas took over as head of the authority in 2005 with a four-year term, and remains its president, even though there have been no elections since 2006.

Deep dissatisfaction

Among those dissatisfied by the authority is Ashraf, 45, who asked NPR to use his first name only for fear of retribution by authority officials.

On a recent evening in a cafe in the Ama'ari refugee camp just outside of Ramallah, Ashraf sat huddled around a wooden stove to keep warm with friends. The air was thick with cigarette and hookah smoke as men drank tea and played cards. On the walls was a large mural of sepia colored images of Palestinians from 1948, when many Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes during the creation of Israel.

Men smoke, play cards and talk politics inside a cafe in the Ama'ari refugee camp, just outside Ramallah, earlier this month. In the occupied West Bank, there is deep dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
/
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Men smoke, play cards and talk politics inside a cafe in the Ama'ari refugee camp, just outside Ramallah, earlier this month. In the occupied West Bank, there is deep dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority.

"Why is it that my son studies in Ramallah, but their sons go to Britain and America to study?" Ashraf asked.

He blamed the Palestinian Authority for not taking care of the basic needs of his camp.

"If snow falls, 50 houses will flood," he said. "There is no power, no electricity, the foundation of the camp is bad."

His friend Nitham Salama, 60, said that he needed the authority to make changes to take care of its citizens in the Palestinian territories, but worried about whether any proposal would actually keep Palestinian interests at heart.

"Americans want reforms for Israel's security and not for the Palestinian people," he said.

Palestinian activist and blogger Akil Awawdeh said the group abuses its power in the West Bank and punishes anyone who dares speak out against it.

Palestinian Authority security personnel walk down a street in Hebron in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 11, 2024. The group is deeply unpopular among many Palestinians, who blame the government for failing to maintain security in parts of the West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Palestinian Authority security personnel walk down a street in Hebron in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 11, 2024. The group is deeply unpopular among many Palestinians, who blame the government for failing to maintain security in parts of the West Bank.

He said he was arrested a year ago by police in Ramallah for posting a Facebook video critical of the Palestinian Authority and the practice of unlawful political detainment. Awawdeh said he was released a few days later after a social media campaign by a number of activists.

He said he was deeply skeptical of any reforms the group might unveil, questioning why it took pressure from the U.S to force change despite years of frustration among Palestinians. He said he had little confidence that any reforms would go far enough, and worried they would be little more than surface changes designed to please the U.S. and Israel.

"After 18 years of doing nothing ... you're telling me it's now that it's time for reforms just to please the international community?" Awawdeh said. "Your people have been asking for reforms for 18 years."

Leaders pin the blame on Israel

Ahmed Majdalani, the Palestinian Authority's head of social development, denied that any long-term reforms would be forced by the U.S. or other international pressure, and said the Israeli occupation was to blame for any corruption inside the government.

"The current leadership of Israel is made up of fascists and it doesn't want to see a Palestinian state," he told NPR from behind a wooden desk in his Ramallah office.

Palestinians walk by a door that was spray painted with a Star of David in the old city of Hebron.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Palestinians walk by a door that was spray painted with a Star of David in the old city of Hebron.

And while Awawdeh agreed that the occupation is the root of the state of affairs of Palestinians today, he wasn't convinced by Majdalani's argument.

"As we journey towards our liberation, it's wrong to use the occupation as an excuse," he said. "It's possible to be moderate, fair and resist the occupation peacefully."

So what is the alternative?

"The alternative is the voting booth," Awawdeh said. "The vacuum that is in this country today is because of 18 years of no elections."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.
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