Stark problems await Hamas-led PA

LONDON — Battered, bloated and broke, the Palestinian Authority faces an uncertain future under a new Hamas leadership at odds with the PLO, Israel and the West.

The Islamist movement’s rise to power has shattered the status quo, rocking Palestinian institutions, alarming Israel and posing a dilemma for US and European Union donors.

Some Palestinians argue that Israeli policies have so undermined the PA that it should be dissolved, a move that would in legal theory force Israel to take back the burden of running the lands it occupies.

“The PA is no longer relevant,” argued Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian envoy to London, saying Israeli policies had shredded its ability to govern. “What will its function be? I’d rather be under occupation with the occupying power in charge.” Horrified by Hamas’ January election win, some Israeli politicians favour writing off the PA, but analysts say a more pragmatic approach may emerge once Israel’s own polls are over next week.

“Israel has no interest in the collapse of the PA, which could drag it into endless occupation,” said Asher Susser, a historian at Tel Aviv University.

Such a scenario, he said, would upset the strategy of withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and setting Israel’s borders unilaterally by 2010, advocated by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert whose Kadima Party is tipped to win the election.

Yossi Mekelberg, an Israeli analyst at London’s Chatham House, said the demise of the PA would bring chaos and humanitarian disaster that could not benefit Israel.

“Let’s assume no meaningful peace process or any roadmap talks are possible for the time being,” he said, referring to the US-sponsored plan for Palestinian statehood. “We’d like to see the PA deal as best it can with domestic issues.”

Non-starter

Hussein Agha, a London-based former PLO negotiator, said the case for dissolving the PA was logical, but unrealistic.

The international community does not want the void the Authority’s absence would create, Israel “needs an address for retaliation or negotiation” and Palestinians with a stake in the PA would cling to their privileges and power, he argued.

Fateh nationalists see it as the nucleus of a Palestinian state on Palestinian land, while Hamas would resist any move to scrap it now it is on the verge of taking control, Agha said.

Western donors are loathe to fund a government led by a group they brand as “terrorist,” but do not want a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Arabs would see as collective punishment for the way Palestinians voted.

Like Israel, they insist that Hamas recognise the Jewish state, renounce violence and recognise previous interim peace deals such as the 1993 Oslo accords which created the authority.

Without endorsing Oslo, Hamas is nevertheless determined to prove it can make the authority function and sweep away the corruption, patronage and mismanagement associated with the long-dominant Fateh faction it trounced in a January election.

That is a daunting task for an armed group suddenly saddled with national responsibility and which not only denies Israel’s right to exist, but also the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

“The PA has been a virtual authority for some time,” said Agha. “Ministers have titles but they can’t fulfill their jobs.

“It’s a non-existent entity that siphons international money and uses some percentage to keep people quiet and services ticking over, and abuses the rest,” he said. “Under Hamas it has a chance, at least in domestic matters, to become more serious, but for that it needs resources.”

Funding crisis

The Palestinians rely on more than $1 billion a year in foreign aid. Israel is already withholding monthly tax revenue of $50-$55 million owed to the PA. Washington has demanded the return of $50 million of US aid to keep it out of Hamas hands.

The EU has not cut off its assistance, but, like Washington, it is exploring ways to channel funds to bypass a Hamas-led PA.

Khaled Abdel-Shafi, an economist in Gaza, said some foreign money would be redirected through UN and private relief agencies, but this would not resolve the PA’s budget problems.

“How is Hamas going to pay 150,000 public servants if Israel is not transferring tax revenues according to Oslo?” he asked.

“Promises from Iran and the Arabs are different from having money in bank,” he said, referring to a Hamas campaign to raise funds from alternative sources in the Arab and Islamic world.

Hassassian said an aid cutoff would bring an economic catastrophe that Palestinians would not blame on Hamas.

“This is an alienated, radicalised, humiliated society that will go back to square one, convulsive violence,” he said. “If that’s what the international community wants, it will get more radicalisation in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world.” Money is just one of the myriad problems awaiting Hamas. It may control the parliament and Cabinet, but Fateh is entrenched in the presidency, bureaucracy, judiciary and security forces.

“Those Fateh centres will resist strongly any attempt by Hamas to take them over,” Agha predicted. “If Hamas wants to reform these things, it needs to reduce the swollen payrolls of the government and security forces, which means laying off Fateh people. That will lead to potential confrontation.” Having Hamas maintain its year-long ceasefire and keep the peace was more important than asking it to recognise Israel or change its charter, Susser said, but acknowledged that such an approach might be hard for Israel’s US ally to accept.

“Given [President George W.] Bush’s agenda of waging war on international terrorism as an article of faith, it may be more embarrassing for them than for Israel to deal with Hamas.”

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