Israel’s nearly 56-year-old project to militarily occupy and demographically reengineer the West Bank has taken an increasingly violent turn. Israeli forces are killing a growing number of West Bank Palestinians – nearly 150 in 2022, the highest number in 18 years, and already 96 as of late April 2023. To target alleged militants, Israeli soldiers have fired shoulder-mounted missiles into homes in densely packed cities. Other Palestinians continue to face the threat of imminent expulsion to make way for an Israeli military firing zone in occupied territory. Predictably, there has also been a spate of Palestinian armed attacks against Israelis and Israeli targets, killing 19 so far this year. While some of this violence can be explained by the inherent logic of military rule and settler colonization, existential threats to Palestinian life in the West Bank have worsened over the past two years. They have become even more apparent since Israel’s far-right government was sworn in at the end of last year. Recently, when Israeli settlers pillaged the Palestinian town of Huwwara, setting fire to homes with families inside, they found support among coalition members in the government.
Indeed, hard-line, annexationist figures in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet have made no secret about their desire to use military force to compel Palestinians to either submit to Israeli sovereignty or leave the country. Bezalel Smotrich, a religious Zionist settler who is now Minister of Finance and what some are calling the occupation’s new “governor” of the West Bank, infamously called for the Israeli military to commit violent ethnic cleansing by “wiping” Huwwara off the map.
Smotrich and like-minded allies envision a return to direct, Israeli military rule over Palestinian towns and cities, obviating the need for the Palestinian Authority (PA) security apparatus. Nonetheless, even such a scorched-earth approach would still need to reckon with the Palestinians who stay, those who are neither defeated nor expelled, and those who continue to resist. Nearly all Israeli annexationists admit this would require preserving, at a minimum, Palestinian-run local governments in Palestinian towns and cities. Such a future version of the Zionist state – especially if buttressed by a de jure apartheid regime – would have neither the intention nor the ability to govern Palestinians where they live.
However, West Bank municipalities – places like Jenin, Ya’bad, Arraba, Birqin, Tammun, Nablus, Jammaein, Beita, Huwwara, Silwad, Qalqilya, Al-Bireh, Hebron, and Beit Ummar – have consistently been laboratories for Palestinian agency and political experimentation. Most recently, media coverage has drawn our attention to the “localization” of one particular form of Palestinian agency: armed struggle. Yet, under direct Israeli rule in the 1970s, we also saw that Palestinian municipal institutions incubated political resistance. Furthermore, while the creation of the PA did fragment and demobilize Palestinians in the West Bank, local politicians who oppose the Oslo regime have still, under certain conditions, found paths into municipal institutions where they have drawn on reputational legitimacy to develop local governing capacity. Overall, history teaches us that shrinking Palestinian organizations and institutions to the local level will not denationalize Palestinian politics.
The Collapse of Indirect Rule, Phase I: Coercive Institutions
Social scientists often think of the core capacities of states – the wielding of coercive force and taxing and spending on goods and services – as intimately related. In the occupied West Bank, where sovereignty is actively contested, Israel has experimented with outsourcing some of these competencies to Palestinian intermediaries. The most robust formulation of this “indirect rule” strategy came with the creation of the Palestinian Authority, an entity disproportionately dedicated to policing Palestinian communities but which also encapsulates various institutions of civil governance. Despite continued speculation about its possible future collapse, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain on the payroll of this sprawling organization. The PA does not only employ Palestinians in its oversized police and intelligence agencies, but also in schools, health centers, the water and sanitation sector, regulatory agencies, and municipalities. A sudden and complete collapse is both hard to imagine and something that could spell a humanitarian crisis.
However, while the civil institutions of the PA sputter along, we can be more specific about what has already collapsed. The legitimacy of the regime of President Mahmoud Abbas – due to the interrelated phenomena of autocracy, corruption, and security cooperation with Israel – has all but evaporated. In a recent poll, an overwhelming 82 percent of West Bank and Gaza respondents attested to the PA’s corruption, and less than half reported that the continued existence of the PA was in the Palestinian national interest. Unsurprisingly, this legitimacy crisis has definitively undermined the ability of PA forces to continue policing Palestinian towns and cities while Israeli soldiers and settlers accelerate their violent attacks on Palestinians. New, localized armed militant groups and newly active brigades have sprung up in cities like Nablus, Jenin, Jericho, and Tulkarem – speaking to the effective abandonment of these communities by the PA security apparatus.
Because the PA security forces, which receive tens of millions of dollars in US assistance each year, are doing virtually nothing to keep Palestinians safe, the rearming of certain segments of Palestinian society should not be surprising. The past two years have been ground-shifting in Palestinian mobilization, from the “Unity Intifada” to the mass protests in response to the murder of Nizar Banat at the hands of PA security forces. In fall 2021, Palestinians were captivated by the escape of six Palestinian political prisoners from the maximum-security Gilboa prison in Israel. In the West Bank, as Israel’s manhunt ensued, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah-affiliated militias readied themselves to shield the escapees in Jenin camp and resist Israeli forces. In a survey carried out just days before the last fugitives were rearrested, Palestinians were asked if they thought the PA would protect the remaining escapees if they managed to reach the occupied territories. Fewer than 22% of West Bank respondents said yes. Indeed, it is in the coercive apparatus where the PA’s most acute and existential legitimacy crisis resides. PA security agents are now receding into the background amidst more frequent Israeli military raids and a proliferation of local Palestinian militias. These and related events precipitated two, urgent meetings between US, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian officials, where, despite the aforementioned attitudes of the majority of Palestinians, delegates have fixated on resuscitating PA coercive institutions.
For now, PA civil institutions, despite experiencing enormous fiscal strains, are still intact. Nonetheless, hard-right figures in the current Israeli government seek to starve the PA out of existence as part of their forcible imposition of Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank. In a 2016 interview with Haaretz, Smotrich asserted: “We don’t even have to topple the PA, it can fall by itself. We only need to stop maintaining it.” With no PA, Israel would then resume direct rule over disenfranchised Palestinians, with no central intermediary based in Ramallah. According to his vision, the reimposition of unmediated Israeli rule over Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank will – through sheer military superiority, massive settlement, and ethnic cleansing – denationalize Palestinians and, thus, definitively puncture their struggle for survival, self-determination, and freedom.
The Collapse of Indirect Rule, Phase II? Political Institutions
Upon the flickering embers of the moribund PA, Smotrich and like-minded allies believe that Israeli military force should be used to compel Palestinians into choosing one of three paths: abandoning their homeland, resisting, or becoming loyal subjects (not yet citizens) of the Zionist state. As for those who resist, we have seen that Smotrich supports, in language laced with war crimes, the eradication of entire towns as a form of collective punishment. An additional, key mechanism in compelling loyalty among the Palestinians who remain is the atomization of Palestinian institutions into municipal bodies. Even those Palestinians in the newly conquered territory who do not take up armed resistance would not be permitted to vote for any national government. Instead, he emphasizes that Palestinians would have the opportunity to vote for their own municipal councils – institutions that are currently subsumed within the PA – under what would then be a single Zionist state. He claims that, even without the right to vote for their national government, “[t]he lion's share of [democratic] rights and freedoms will be granted…for Arabs of Judea and Samaria, including the right to vote in municipal administrations which control their daily lives.” They simply will not have “the right to an ideological vote for a sovereign parliament,” (emphasis added in both quotes).
Smotrich’s plan will fail because it depends on enforcing an impossible separation between governance of Palestinian towns and cities and ideological commitments to national liberation. Here, it is worth revisiting history to demonstrate why local autonomy under military rule will not stave off Palestinian resistance. By the mid-1970s, Israel was struggling with maintaining its occupation through the co-optation of local Palestinian elites. Municipal elections in 1972 had, for the most part, placed pro-Hashemite conservatives in positions of power in the West Bank. Yet, a number of these urban councils were nonetheless resigning in protest against Israeli repression. In a second set of local elections in 1976, members of the Palestinian national resistance – those close to the parties of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – swept to victory. Newly elected mayors, carefully navigating between the quarreling factions of the PLO, developed their own local and national profiles as leaders willing to stand up to Israel. A number of them participated in the National Guidance Committee in 1978, which, according to journalist Rafik Halabi, rallied thousands in Nablus, Birzeit, and Bethlehem, behind its rejection of the Camp David process and its demands for an end to the occupation and the right of return.
These popularly elected leaders quickly became a thorn in Israel’s side. An effort to deport Nablus’s then-mayor, Bassam Shaka’a, failed; he returned from prison to a hero’s welcome in his storied city, and the events left him more emboldened than ever. Importantly, though, Israel found that the reimposition of autocratic control over municipalities did not work, either – or, if it did, its effects were short-lived. After three of the 1976 mayors, including Shaka’a, were targeted with car bomb attacks by the Jewish Underground, Israel unceremoniously ousted them. Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron and Mohammed Milhem of Halhul were forcibly exiled. Israeli military officials became de facto mayors. Meanwhile, in rural areas, Israel attempted to cultivate, and arm, rural collaborators through the so-called “Village Leagues,” but the experiment was short-lived. Israel’s attempt to claw back autocratic control over municipalities in the mid-1980s did the occupation no favors. With either popularly elected local leaders or appointed agents of the occupation, Palestinians rejected denationalization and fed the ranks of protesters in the ensuing Intifada. Palestinian resistance took to the streets.
The lesson that local politics cannot be divorced from national aspirations was also repeated in the waning years of the Second Intifada. This time under the Oslo-created PA, elections were held for local councils over four rounds between December 2004 and December 2005. Opponents and critics of Fatah – including Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and independent or small party candidates – performed strongly. (For example, Hamas-affiliated mayors took power in Jenin and Al-Bireh; a PFLP candidate was chosen in Bethlehem; and an independent candidate, in coalition with Hamas, became mayor of Nablus.) These politicians, in both the larger cities and smaller towns of the West Bank, were repressed by both Israel and the PA. In interviews with these former mayors and council members, I learned how some of them were arrested in coordinated sequence by Israel and the PA so that their terms would run out and they could be, with at least a suggestion of legality, replaced by an appointee. Others were threatened with the loss of their regular jobs in the PA civil service.
Over the ensuing years, municipalities were reabsorbed into the one-party regime of Fatah. By 2012, when non-competitive local elections were held, resistance factions had lost most, but not all, of their representation in local government bodies. Still, the preceding elections permitted an organized, public, authoritative role for resistance groups and anti-Oslo politicians. Some of the staff members hired by these councils continue to work in the municipalities today. Some of the politicians themselves managed, through carefully navigating their own party affiliations, to continue to serve on local councils after 2012. Some even emerged as candidates for the national legislature, before President Abbas canceled elections planned for 2021. Others remained politically active on social media, in NGOs, and in their mosques. As a former mayor affiliated with Hamas told me in 2019: “These are lived experiences that we are discussing; it is not yet history.”
The lesson – from both the 1970s-80s and from the early 2000s – is that Israel cannot denationalize Palestinians by atomizing their institutions. When there are electoral openings – as there were in 1976 and 2004-2005 – Palestinian nationalists have demonstrated they know how to take advantage. When, on the other hand, the military regime imposes its will autocratically – as it did in the early- to mid-1980s, and as the PA has done since at least 2012 – Palestinians will return to urban resistance. Smotrich may delight in his reputation as a militant firebrand, but, in fact, his ideas are a tired recycling of strategies tried and failed. Palestinian resistance to military domination does not require a national institutional structure. Just as water seeks its own level, the will to resist military rule and ethnonational supremacy will flow through all channels afforded to it. This includes working through civil institutions when they are available, but it also includes, as we have seen all too clearly in recent months, the use of armed violence. Even if Israel can, and does, impose a totalizing autocracy, Palestinians will – as the prisoners who escaped from Gilboa did, with plates and pan handles – continue to dig their own tunnels to daylight.