Since Israel launched its assault on Gaza more than three months ago, U.S. officials have repeatedly spoken about returning postwar administrative and security control of the occupied territory to the Palestinian Authority — a proposal so far rejected by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
On multiple occasions, Biden administration officials have said that Gaza, which was ruled by the PA before Hamas took over in 2007, should be reconnected to the West Bank “under a revamped and revitalized Palestinian Authority.” In a memo circulated to foreign diplomats this month, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh criticized the U.S. plan, arguing that “much of the current talk about the need to revitalise the Authority … is really just a cover for the failure of international community [to commit] Israel to a political solution.” Earlier, he was even more blunt: Shtayyeh said in November that PA officials would not be going to Gaza “on an Israeli military tank.”
Shtayyeh’s comment was rare recognition by a senior PA official of the authority’s overwhelming lack of support among Palestinians, who largely view their leadership as an illegitimate and increasingly authoritarian “subcontractor” for Israel’s occupation. In particular, the U.S.-backed Palestinian security forces’ role in the repression of Palestinian resistance and the PA’s security coordination with Israel — under a U.S.-managed arrangement — have long been a key factor in Palestinians’ anger at their representatives. Their disillusionment has only been exacerbated in recent years as PA forces have carried out a series of violent crackdowns, detaining, and often abusing, not only those perceived to pose a threat to Israel’s security but also critics of the PA itself, including hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.
Human rights advocates caution that American support for PA forces has enabled their growing culture of impunity. “When they do anything, they know the Americans are behind them and can protect them,” said Shawan Jabareen, director of Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, which has documented torture and other abuses by Palestinian security forces.
The PA’s role in preserving Israel’s interests in the West Bank is precisely why the prospect of their return to Gaza has engendered much skepticism among Palestinians, who fear the arrangement would only outsource Israel’s repression, rather than offer them a legitimate representative to advocate for their interests.
“People know the PA is not going to liberate the place,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former negotiator with the Palestine Liberation Organization, noting that confidence in the authority has deteriorated even further since Israel launched its war on Gaza. “But they do expect representation.”
“Post October 7, the PA was nowhere to be found. They haven’t been representing,” she added. “So when people talk about this revitalized PA, we have no idea what they’re talking about. What does it mean to revitalize it? The only thing that I can think that it means is more money going to the security forces, more money going to suppress.”
Liberation vs. Stability
The Palestinian security forces were established as part of the Oslo negotiations in the mid-1990s in lieu of a military for what was to be a Palestinian sovereign state. A combination of police, intelligence, and civil defense bodies funded and trained by the U.S. and European countries, PA forces carry out a range of law enforcement functions, many in coordination with their Israeli counterparts.
That coordination, which Palestinian leaders have repeatedly threatened to end during escalations in Israeli violence, is most controversial when Palestinian forces are deployed to target groups and individuals that Israel accuses of “terrorism.”
“The security coordination is one of the chief obstacles to achieving Palestinian liberation,” Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and political analyst who has repeatedly been arrested by Palestinian security forces for participating in protests critical of the PA, told The Intercept in an interview last year. “This is a very sophisticated system of domination and control that was designed within Palestinian society. It’s a very systematic process of seeking to get Palestinians to help control their people.”
The tension between the Palestinian public’s political aspirations and Palestinian forces’ role in undermining them was on display at a security forces base in the West Bank city of Jericho last year. During a two-day visit before the war started, The Intercept spoke with several recruits and mid-level officials at the base on condition of anonymity, as the visit was not authorized by senior leadership.
Young recruits in training spoke fervently of their commitment to the Palestinian national cause and dismissed questions about the PA’s contributions to maintaining the occupation. At the base, they practiced drills while chanting nationalist songs and slogans. On their barracks, hand-painted murals celebrated PA President Mahmoud Abbas and late PLO leader Yasser Arafat but also paid tribute to armed resistance and the Lions’ Den, a West Bank-based militant group that emerged in recent years and quickly became a primary target of the Israeli military. The rhetoric at the base echoed a time, during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, when members of the Palestinian security forces joined militant groups in the fighting against the Israeli military.
In the aftermath of the Second Intifada, the last major Palestinian uprising against Israel, the U.S. and European countries sought to regain control by investing heavily in economic and security stability in the occupied territories, seeking to depoliticize Palestinian forces, and indefinitely postponing a final resolution to the conflict.
“We work for stabilization,” Giuliano Politi, a member of the Italian Carabinieri, a paramilitary force, who instructed PA recruits at the Jericho base on protection for official figures, basic shooting, and public order. “Everything is aimed at that.”
“The liberation struggle is translated to them as this kind of maintaining peace and order of their own people.”
An overwhelming majority of the security forces’ leadership are affiliated with Fatah, the political party that’s ruled the West Bank since the Oslo Accords. Many are former fighters and political prisoners, giving them an aura of legitimacy with younger generations. But as an institution, the PA forces have traded a commitment to liberating the territories from occupation to maintaining order.
“To be fair to the younger recruits, they do when they enter believe that this is what their goal is,” said Quran, the activist. “People come in with this assumption that they’re going to be part of the liberation struggle, but then the liberation struggle is translated to them as this kind of maintaining peace and order of their own people.”
That’s in part due to pressure from the foreign governments funding the PA — particularly the U.S., which has heavily invested in the Palestinian security sector. The authority is also often at the mercy of Israel, which has long viewed the PA as a greater political threat than Hamas. The PA is the primary economic engine in Palestine, employing at least 150,000 people and serving as livelihood to some 942,000, including in Gaza. But to pay their salaries, the PA is at the mercy of foreign donors and Israel, which controls the flow of funds to the PA and frequently withholds them to exert pressure on the authority.
“They’re actually a crucial part to the continuing occupation,” said Quran. “Because without 150,000 young Palestinians being mobilized against their own people, for the sake of Israel’s security, if you had those 150,000 people mobilized for other activities that focus on Palestinian liberation, you’d have a much different ballgame, a much different type of struggle on the ground.”
“Security for Israel”
Some leaders of the PA security forces acknowledge the contradiction of their role maintaining order in the West Bank but insist the alternative would be catastrophic. “[Israel] will destroy our infrastructure again, destroy our institutions again, destroy our forces again — they can do that easily,” a senior member of the PA forces told The Intercept. “They will destroy everything we have built in the last 30 years.”
The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with journalists, added that Palestinian forces were “standing on the edge of a sword.”
The Israelis “always try their best to provoke us to react violently so they can justify their crimes.”
“We are under huge pressure by the Israelis; they always try their best to provoke us to react violently so they can justify their crimes,” he said. “They are trying all the time to prove that we are a failure and cannot keep law and order and cannot keep the security of the place we’re supposed to be responsible for, to justify their daily incursions and killings of our people.”
In practice, that has meant PA forces standing down in the face of growing settler violence, and as the Israeli military has increasingly invaded parts of the West Bank that are nominally under the security control of the PA. It’s also led to the emergence of new militant groups seeking to fill the void left by PA forces. “If no protection is provided to you from a third party, from your own government, or from the occupying power,” said Jabareen, of Al Haq, “you will try to look for your own ways to protect yourself.”
The PA security forces’ repression of dissent has further cost them legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public. In October, as anger mounted at Israel’s war on Gaza, Palestinian security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Such crackdowns have grown more frequent in recent years, and reached a peak in the aftermath of Palestinian security forces’ 2021 killing of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of Palestinian leadership.
“Nizar wanted freedom for the Palestinian people, and in his view, the Palestinian people had lost that freedom for two reasons: Mahmoud Abbas and the PA and Israel,” Nizar’s brother Ghassan Banat told The Intercept at his office in Hebron, which he had turned into a shrine filled with photos and quotes from his late brother. “He said we must free ourselves of the PA, and then we must work together to free ourselves from Israel. And so the PA killed him.”
“The PA security forces are not there for the security of Palestinians,” Banat said. “They are security for Israel.”