Saying Palestinians are oppressed by their own leadership is victim-blaming

“Comment: Don’t tell us the PA is authoritarian, we live under both them and Israel, writes Muhammad Shehada.

Human Rights Watch released an unusual report this Tuesday, on the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), entitled “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent.”

The report reveals shocking details about unlawful torture and persecution practices adopted by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza, against political dissidents and opponents.

While the report uncovers indisputably horrendous behaviour, even more agonizing is the bizarre moral inferences drawn from it by the gatekeepers of Israel’s entrenched criminal occupation.

The international and Israeli mainstream media picked up the story almost instantly, and it has been circulated by a number of Israeli officials and party leaders usually dismissive of similar HRW reports criticising Israel’s crimes against humanity. Their aim? To vilify and victim-blame Palestinians by promoting the slur that they are exclusively oppressed by their own leaders, rather than addressing the root of the problem.

Governance, to begin with, is never a locally-produced process of moving towards either democratisation or authoritarianism, but rather, it’s an ever-changing performative construct, produced and reproduced from the surrounding environment. Neglecting the the impact factors of external power and influence always leads to reductionist and morally bankrupt conclusions.

In Palestine’s case, if the intricacies of the status quo are all taken into consideration, the emergence of a police state would be unsurprising in light of the occupation.

“In Palestine’s case, if the intricacies of the status quo are all taken into consideration, the emergence of a police state would be unsurprising in light of the occupation.”

First, the two elements that usually challenge this style of sultanic rule, and put a check on power, namely accountability to the people through voting, and civil society activism, have been largely obliterated since Oslo, through foreign and Israeli mediation, with relatively marginal contribution from internal players.

In addition to the fact that Palestinian activists are systematically blacklisted, detained and bullied by the Israeli army, Palestinian civil society has long been victim of ‘NGO-isation’ that hindered the will and ability to create social movements that call for change. 

Read more: Abuse and torture rife at Palestinian jails, says rights group

Most grassroots organisations, which led the first Intifada — a Palestinian mass civil disobedience campaign demanding basic rights and liberties — have been turned into NGOs; hollowing out their meaning or capacity to take concrete initiatives.

Western peacebuilding interventions to foster leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives in an impoverished society still in conflict, paved the way for the emergence of fragmented self-interested NGO elites, whose main concern is to compete over scarce European funding rather than sustain a collaborative grassroots mobilisation to stand against the injustices visited upon Palestinians.

As for the lack of people’s agency, if accountability through voting was still in place, neither the PA nor Hamas would have even pondered harming their public image by oppressing their constituencies.

However, the Palestinian division in 2007, fueled by the US and Israel, took elections off the table for nearly a decade of futile reconciliation attempts, obstructed by Israeli vetoes.

The resulting lack of electoral incentive in the occupied Palestinian territories — due to the division perpetuated by Netanyahu’s commitment to maintaining the status quo — obliterated the concept of accountability of the government to the people, and people’s worries and grievances become invisible to the eyes of PA and Hamas leaders. The people were left with no way of challenging their unchecked authority, except by calling for the reconciliation to be finalised.

“It is wholly wrong for Israel to have created such a deeply-corrupting atmosphere in the occupied Palestinian territories and then blame Palestinian leaders for adjusting to their surroundings”

But PA Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat has described how the Israeli negotiating team withdrew instantly from the peace table, when the PA signed the reconciliation accord with Hamas in 2014. The US made a similar rebuke. “Mr Netanyahu and his government were using Palestinian division as an excuse not to make peace. Now they want to use Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same purpose. This is utterly absurd,” Erekat said.

When Netanyahu’s efforts to thwart the Palestinian reconciliation through diplomacy failed, he waged a 51-days-long war on Gaza to destroy Palestinian unity.

In this sense, external forces have invested heavily in perpetuating the political and geographical disunity between the West Bank and Gaza, and in doing so, have helped sustain the lack of electoral incentive. They are the ones who should answer for the oppression of Palestinians, not the other way around.

Furthermore, the PA’s collaborationist security forces in the West Bank — where disproportionate foreign funding and assistance for PA security means the highest pay goes to security personnel rather than teachers, doctors or civil servants — offers an irresistible pull for some. 

In fact, the very continuity of such funding is contingent upon sustaining the security collaboration with Israeli, with all the “counter-terrorism” measures that it entails, not least torture, detention and blacklisting.

Not to mention that most of the torture methods in discussion are in the first place cloned from those practiced against Palestinian prisoners in Israel. 

Former Hamas detainees who assumed security roles in Gaza’s government introduced these techniques, having learned them from their experience as prisoners in Israel. The PA’s security forces, however have been intensively trained on counterinsurgency and interrogation methods by countless American and Israeli generals since Oslo.

So it is unsurprising such techniques are employed in discontiguous, unstable, immiserated Palestinian cantons, governed by an authority deprived of all means of sovereignty, except for the monopoly on violence that is used, in the absence of soft power, to keep people within the lines drawn by Israel.

Indeed, a significant contribution to this status quo also comes from Palestinian isolation, and lack of interaction with the world around them. For instance, most people in besieged Gaza have never set foot outside the unlivable cage created by Israel’s decade-long blockade, including the very leaders who control Gaza with little or no experience in good governance, and so have no interaction with good examples to learn from.

“The international community should address the roots of those problems and foster Palestinian reconciliation to resume the democratic process”

Finally, in Gaza’s specific case, the paranoia about ceaseless Israeli intelligence efforts to infiltrate society and recruit collaborators gives Hamas a perfect alibi for targeting opponents as potential security threats if they engage in anything considered remotely suspicious of destabilising Hamas’ rule.

For as long as the occupation remains, Israel will always try to pit the Palestinians against each other, using a divide and conquer cliché in order to contain the occupied population.

In conclusion, it is wholly wrong for Israel to have created such a deeply-corrupting atmosphere in the occupied Palestinian territories and then blame Palestinian leaders for adjusting to their surroundings.

 Rather, the international community should address the roots of those problems, and foster Palestinian reconciliation to resume the democratic process of elections and accountability, through which an elected government of the people, by the people and for the people would end such internal oppression.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

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Muhammad Shehada

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