May 24. 2024. 5:13

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Palestinian Authority PM Mohammad Shtayyeh: Holding elections an ‘existential issue’ for leadership

The roads surrounding the offices of Mohammad Shtayyeh in downtown Ramallah are quiet while locals stage a day of mourning for Palestinians killed the previous day in an Israeli military raid and public sector workers remain at home on strike over pay.

An economist and politician from the secular Fatah party, Shtayyeh (65) is serving his fourth year as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous regime that administers the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Beset by overlapping political, economic and security crises, the authority faces a widespread loss of popular support and the challenges posed by a new hardline Israeli government in Jerusalem.

Shortly before Shtayyeh meets reporters in his office, Al Jazeera broadcasts video footage of PA security forces using tear gas and flash grenades at a funeral being held in the Palestinian city of Nablus, a stronghold of Hamas, an Islamist militant group and rival to Fatah.

Mourners had gathered to attend the funeral of a Hamas member whom the Israeli military killed, along with five others, on March 7th in Jenin refugee camp for his alleged involvement in the murder of two Israelis in the nearby town of Huwara.

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Attendees at the funeral called the PA’s security forces “traitors” and “spies” before being forced to flee from tear gas fired at them. Asked by The Irish Times how the authority justifies the use of force at the funeral, Shtayyeh denies that any was used: “It never happened.”

Several human rights NGOs including Amnesty International and Al-Haq, a Palestinian organisation that documents violations committed by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, have previously criticised Palestinian security forces for their use of excessive force on protesters and the suppression of peaceful assemblies.

Al-Haq general director Shawan Jabarin said Palestinians were not being properly protected by “the occupying power, or by the PA, which is also under occupation, or by the international community”.

In his opinion, Mr Jabarin said, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government should not be viewed equally. “Legally speaking, the Palestinian Authority is a subcontractor of the occupation… we are not an independent state.”

Previous Israeli governments have viewed a functioning PA as a mechanism to stabilise the West Bank and reduce support for Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since winning elections in 2006. But since taking power last year, the ultranationalist Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu has shown little appetite for bolstering the increasingly unpopular Palestinian regime.

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In his office, Shtayyeh tells journalists that Netanyahu’s government is interested in neither a one-state solution to the Middle East conflict nor a two-state solution: “All Israel wants is to maintain the status quo, which is unsustainable and a deteriorating reality every day… [involving] more land appropriation, more settlers, more killings and more incursions into refugee camps, as well as into Al-Aqsa Mosque”.

Last December, the PA successfully lobbied for a UN General Assembly vote requesting a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

The new Israeli government responded to the UN vote by withholding tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA, in addition to taxes it already withholds based on stipends that the authority pays to Palestinians convicted of attacks on Israelis and to their families.

“Israel collects taxes on our behalf and every single month including this month, Israel has deducted 276 million shekels [approximately €72 million] of our resources,” says Shtayyeh. “That’s a substantial amount of money that is putting us in deficit and why we have not been able to pay full salaries for the last seven months.”

An Israeli official who spoke with The Irish Times after our meeting with Shtayyeh said“attacks on Jews should not be incentivised” and that the withheld funds would be used to compensate Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks.

An uptick in lethal Israeli military raids in the West Bank have further strained what Shtayyeh describes as the PA’s “contractual relationship with Israel”.

In January, the authority suspended security co-operation with Israel following a raid by its military on the Jenin refugee camp that left 10 Palestinians dead. The long-standing arrangement with Israel involved the PA’s security forces arresting Palestinian militants on behalf of the Israeli authorities and sharing information about the Palestinian population.

An Israeli military official told The Irish Times security co-operation was “very important to the stability of the region”, but among Palestinians in the West Bank, the arrangement is widely viewed as a form of collaboration that only protects Israeli soldiers and civilians.

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Israeli media reported that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told CIA director William Burns, during an official visit by him to the West Bank a week after security co-operation was officially suspended, that Palestinian security forces would continue arresting Palestinian suspects. Asked about this by The Irish Times, Shtayyeh denies that the PA is continuing to engage in any security co-operation with Israel.

The authority has been widely criticised for its failure to hold legislative or presidential elections during the 17-year tenure of Abbas, who in 2018 oversaw the dissolution of the Palestinian parliament, which drew its members from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Shtayyeh says holding elections is “an existential issue” for the Palestinian leadership and blames the delay on Israeli opposition to elections being held in East Jerusalem, which Israeli forces annexed in 1967 but which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

“Last year the Israelis said ‘no elections in Jerusalem’,” saysr Shtayyeh. “For Israel, it means that Jerusalem is not part of Palestine… When the Palestinian leadership was faced with the choice of elections or Jerusalem, everybody said ‘Jerusalem’, but we continue to fight for elections.”

“We have heard this accusation over and over,” said the Israeli official, “but the reality is that Mahmoud Abbas did not want to hold elections in 2021 and used East Jerusalem as an excuse.” The official declined to comment on whether the Israeli authorities would permit polling stations inside East Jerusalem for elections organised by the Palestinian Authority.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mustafa Barghouti, the secretary general of Al-Mubadara, a left-wing opposition party, and the runner-up to Abbas in the presidential elections in 2005, says a mechanism has been designed to allow East Jerusalemites to vote in elections notwithstanding Israeli opposition.

“The Palestinian Authority is making big mistakes including cancelling elections and eliminating the separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislative powers,” says Barghouti. “How can young people have a say or participate in leadership if there are no democratic systems and democratic elections?”

“If there were elections, I would not vote,” says a 26-year-old Palestinian aid worker living in Ramallah who asked that their name be withheld. “What am I voting for? For who’s going to play the clown in this PA? I want an election on the streets where we vote to uproot the PA from its place.”