In the early hours of March 6, Israeli soldiers raided a house in Ramallah and killed prominent youth political activist and thinker Basel al-Araj. Israeli soldiers had pursued al-Araj for months following his release in September from a Palestinian Authority (PA) prison where he was detained without trial and reportedly tortured. Al-Araj was a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation and of the PA, and he advocated grassroots struggle against both. He was not formally affiliated with any faction but was one of an emerging group of young leaders in Palestine that called for revitalizing the stagnant Palestinian national movement.
The circumstances of his arrest, release and subsequent extrajudicial killing suggest that the PA was compliant if not complicit in al-Araj’s killing. President Mahmoud Abbas boasted of al-Araj’s arrest as an example of the PA’s successful security coordination with Israel. His killing in an area designated to be under PA security control is likely another product of that coordination. Rising figures like al-Araj, who offer a new type of political activism and leadership, represent a challenge to the PA’s control and growing distance from the people it purports to represent.
Security coordination with Israel is one way for the PA to ensure its dominance and eliminate its rivals. The PA’s decision to proceed with trying al-Araj posthumously, which was cancelled amidst violent suppression of the protests that ensued, confirm as much. However, missing from the overwhelming condemnations of al-Araj’s assassination is an understanding that the PA’s ability to eliminate competition existed long before his untimely death, and only intensified since 2007 in the aftermath of Hamas’ landslide democratic victory and the subsequent national political rift.
Video footage by Quds News Network captures members of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces violently suppressing protests against Basel al-Araj’s posthumous trial at the Court House in Ramallah, March 12, 2017. The video shows al-Araj’s father being dragged onto the street as protesters scream “this is a martyr’s father you dogs!”
THE PLO: A LEGACY OF MILITARISM AND NEOPATRIMONIALISM
The PA, established in 1994, has its institutional and structural origins in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964. As an umbrella organization consisting of diverse political factions oriented toward resistance and national liberation, the PLO embodied a political vanguard rather than a representative body. This structure, which was obliged to operate in a semi-clandestine fashion by constant Israeli hostility and its precarious position in Arab host-states, engendered decision-making that lacked transparency and was heavily influenced by regional affairs and military considerations. It also limited popular participation and in time engendered an autocratic style of rule.
In addition, the PLO’s reliance on funds from foreign sponsors and the neopatrimonial networks through which this money circulated had their own lasting effects. Controlling most funding, including much of that which went to rival factions, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat—who also headed the PLO’s largest faction, Fatah—used his treasury to ensure the loyalty of individuals and institutions. When he encountered any institution he could not co-opt or directly control, he duplicated it: Arafat was known for creating multiple rival security organizations that were on his payroll and solely loyal to him.
As chairman, Arafat also enjoyed significant control over the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), where he appointed loyal associates to so-called independent seats. Initially, the consensus decision-making process of the PNC and of the Central Committee of Fatah, the largest PLO faction, curtailed Arafat’s power to dictate policy, but over time, as rivals were weakened or assassinated by Israel, the PNC came to vote by simple majority and became a rubber-stamp institution.
OSLO: INSTITUTIONALIZING ARAFAT’S PERSONALIZED RULE
The PA internalized all these dynamics. Despite the trappings of democratic elections, the PA was beholden to Arafat’s will. The now-president demanded final say on all decisions and continued to ensure that all institutions remained under his control. Funds from abroad were still dispersed in networks of patronage and, as a result, corruption within the PA’s nascent institutions abounded, with new security apparatuses also proliferating.
As the PA grew, Arafat sidelined the PLO and its member institutions. The PNC only met once between 1994 and 2008, and when it made decisions he did not like, he either ignored it or used his position as chairman to undermine it. Most significantly, the PA neglected the primary constituency of the now near-dormant PLO: the Palestinian diaspora. With the PLO’s institutions and constituency disempowered and excluded, the conflation of the PLO, the PA and Fatah strengthened, with Arafat heading all three.
While the Oslo period represented a time of consolidation of power for Arafat and the PA, the Second Intifada demonstrated that rivals to their hegemony remained. Indeed, during and shortly after the uprising, certain areas, such as the refugee camps of Jenin and Balata, were controlled by armed opposition factions and off-limits to PA security forces. Following Arafat’s death in 2004 and the 2006 legislative elections, the PA, now led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), set out to eliminate once and for all potential rivals in its West Bank fiefdom.
ABU MAZEN’S RULE
Abbas inherited Arafat’s three-fold position at the head of the PLO, the PA and Fatah, but he lacked his predecessor’s charisma and strength of personality. His continued push to consolidate power and assert PA hegemony in the West Bank relied on a state-building project revolving around security coordination with Israel and Security Sector Reform (SSR). As shown by Alaa Tartir in “Criminalizing Resistance: The Cases of Balata and Jenin Refugee Camps,” an upcoming article in the Journal of Palestine Studies, the PA’s security campaign, with Western backing and Israeli support, has been geared at suppressing groups that might challenge PA rule.
The purported goal of the campaign, Tartir writes, was to bring security to the Palestinians of the West Bank and to assert the PA’s monopoly of force, thereby demonstrating its suitability for statehood, as demanded by the international donor community. Thus, Western-trained PA Security Forces (PASF) were deployed to eliminate “areas of chaos and anarchy” and to “establish the rule of ‘one gun, one law, one authority.’” The raids throughout the West Bank also aimed to hamper the activities of militant opposition outside the bounds of the PLO and to integrate Fatah-affiliated fighters into the PASF.
Despite the rhetoric, Tartir argues, the “overarching goal” of the raids and the SSR “was to criminalize resistance against the Israeli occupation and silence opposition to Israel’s colonial dominance.” As al-Araj’s case demonstrates, the raids targeted resistance advocates and fighters, including many affiliated with Fatah, alongside common criminals, and torture in detention was widespread. Furthermore, the raids destroyed the infrastructure supporting opposition factions as well as organized resistance to the occupation.
TRANSFORMATION TO AUTHORITARIANISM
This authoritarian turn, whose “early stages” were signaled by the 2007 security campaign, according to Tartir, has become fully integrated into the PA’s modus operandi in the decade since SSR began. The PA has suppressed protests against Israeli attacks on Gaza, implicit criticism such as expressing support for opposition factions has been outlawed, and arrest of critics is commonplace. In fact, the PA and the Hamas government in Gaza share a deep intolerance of dissent and they use similar tactics, including arrests of unarmed protesters and media personnel, to quash it.
The suppression of the October 2015 outburst of Palestinian resistance (habba in Arabic) is another facet of the authoritarian transformation. The habba’s lack of organized leadership, which might otherwise have been grounded in opposition factions, took its toll rapidly and under ferocious Israeli repression the outburst began fizzling out by March 2016. The void was not simply an organizational failure by the overwhelmingly young participants: potential leaders of the movement like Basel al-Araj found themselves in PA prisons, or worse, assassinated by Israeli hit squads. The habba died down and the PA returned to the status quo.
Thus, the murder of Basel al-Araj was as much a product of the Israeli occupation as of the PA’s quest for complete and unchallenged dominance.