Can the Palestinian Authority Really Govern Gaza After the War?

Lanky and lightly bearded, Jihad Imtoor is the proud son of a fighter killed in the first intifada, or uprising, against Israel. His father was a member of Fatah, the political faction that controls the Palestinian Authority. But he has had enough of its rule in the West Bank.

On a recent day, Mr. Imtoor, 32, a small-business owner, stood outside his shop, watching a march for the many Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, whom Hamas says it is trying to free as part of a deal for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“I’m not Hamas, but I hope it comes here,” he said. “The P.A. has taken a lot from us, and it’s time for them to go.”

Referring to the monument in the center of Ramallah, he said: “The P.A. is working fine to protect the four lions on Manara Square, but they cannot protect the people from Israel.”

President Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken have said that after the latest war, Gaza should be unified with the Israeli-occupied West Bank under a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, which controls large parts of the West Bank in close coordination, some say collaboration, with Israel.

Today few people in the West Bank or Israel regard the authority as capable of governing a post-conflict Gaza. The authority is deeply unpopular even where it rules in the West Bank, because it is seen as a subcontractor to the long Israeli occupation.

Its support is so tenuous, in fact, that it would be unlikely to survive without the security provided by the Israeli Army.

Set up after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority was intended as a temporary administration on the way toward an independent Palestinian state. It is dominated by the Fatah faction, excludes Hamas, and for much of that time, it has been run by President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who is now 88.

Mr. Abbas has ensured that there have been no national elections since his Fatah faction lost a legislative ballot to Hamas in 2006. The year before, he was elected president for what was supposed to be a four-year term.

In the view of many of the people it is supposed to represent, the authority has devolved into an authoritarian, corrupt and undemocratic administration that sits on an iron throne built by Israel.

Restoring the authority’s credibility, Palestinians and experts say, would require broadening its base to include Hamas and other Palestinian groups, holding elections to form a new leadership, and insisting on the reunification of the West Bank and Gaza under some sort of two-state paradigm with Israel.

But the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 have nearly destroyed Israeli trust in Palestinian governance, and if elections were held today, it is probable, experts and polls suggest, that Hamas would win again.

Asked if the authority could run Gaza, Asala Khdour, 30, a housewife from Ramallah, was unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” she said. “The P.A. is just sitting,” she said, with many years without elections. “The one who does for the people should be in charge of the people,” she added, referring to Hamas.

The success of Hamas in dealing a major blow to Israel has humiliated Mr. Abbas, who at the same time is trying with the Israelis to keep the peace in the West Bank, however difficult and unpopular that may be.

The West Bank is riddled with Israeli settlements and checkpoints, dividing the land and making travel for Palestinians an obstacle course of shortcuts and road closures. There is increasing violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers, and now constant raids that the Israeli military says it aimed at Hamas members and fighters, especially around Nablus and Jenin.

Even among a budding middle class that has grown up in the relative stability of the West Bank, there is little respect for the authority. With financial troubles and a reduced budget, it has already cut the salaries it pays by some 30 percent, acknowledged Sabri Saidam, an influential member of the Fatah Central Committee.

“How can they rule Gaza?” asked Iyad Masrouji, the chief executive of Jerusalem Pharmaceuticals, which operates in the West Bank and Gaza. “The Americans talk with the rhetoric of 30 years ago,” he said. “But we live in a different reality. If we had a fair election, Hamas would win, and more now.”

People see the Palestinian leadership “negotiating for years for their own political survival, not for the sake of their national aspirations,” said Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political scientist. “They achieved neither.”

While Fatah committed to recognition of Israel, a two-state solution now feels like a fantasy to many, undercut by Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the country’s right-wing governments.

The failure to reach a negotiated peace has made the other obvious alternative — that of armed Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation — more acceptable and popular.

Despite the brutality of Hamas on Oct. 7, when Israel says it killed an estimated 1,200 people and took roughly 240 hostages, Palestinians in the West Bank have generally hailed the group for piercing the domination of Israel and bringing the fate of Palestinians back into international focus.

“From the Palestinian point of view, it looked like a miracle,” said Sari Nusseibeh, a moderate Palestinian who was the president of Al Quds University. “This fortress Israel suddenly seemed vulnerable.” Mr. Nusseibeh said he abhorred the violence perpetrated by Hamas on Oct. 7 but is clear about the impact.

“Who is the Palestinian leadership now? It’s Hamas, like it or not,” Mr. Nusseibeh said. “At the moment Hamas is seen by Palestinians as the foremost representative of Palestinian interests.” And why? “Because no one else is. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t figure in people’s minds,” he said.

Yet what has kept the Palestinian Authority alive through years of international neglect and Israeli dominance is a lack of alternatives.

“The P.A. has been hanging on for dear life for quite some time,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer who was once a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization but has become a critic. “No one in the international community wants to sign the death certificate, because it means the end of the peace process, the two-state solution and this very convenient body that they can blame and funnel money to.”

Mr. Biden has done next to nothing for Mr. Abbas or the authority, she said. “And now here we are, and suddenly he’s their hope. It just boggles the mind. It’s 1990s thinking that can no longer be revived.”

For the Israelis, the authority has proved a useful tool to quell popular anger over the war in Gaza.

But tensions are rising, a senior Israeli security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under military ground rules, with the authority losing sway over parts of the north, especially around Jenin, where Israeli forces have tried to restore control.

The Palestinian Authority is caught, wanting to stand publicly with Palestinian resistance against Israel, the Israeli security official said. But on the ground, Palestinian security forces have made many arrests.

Tensions are high as well because a few hundred of the 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank are using the war in Gaza to attack Palestinians, the official said, and violence is increasing.

Since Oct. 7, Israeli forces have killed 201 Palestinians, including 52 children, and Israeli settlers have killed an additional eight, including one child, according to the United Nations. Four Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians, and Israel says it has arrested 1,850 Palestinians, 1,100 of them affiliated with Hamas.

Palestinian Authority officials say that despite popular pressure to confront Israel, they are acting to protect their own people.

Hussein al-Sheikh, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a close aide to Mr. Abbas, said in an interview that unlike Israel’s “extreme reaction” in Gaza, “on the P.A.’s side, the decision was to maintain calm, security and stability, as well as peace.”

Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian pollster, said that in his latest survey, not yet published, 66 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank regard the authority as a burden. Some 85 percent want Mr. Abbas to resign — and that means “more than 60 percent of his own rank-and-file” in Fatah want him to go, Mr. Shikaki said.

Could the authority in its current state take over Gaza? “Of course not,” he said. “Governance is about establishing law and order and enforcing the rules, and the P.A. cannot do that.”

The only solution, many Palestinians say, is to find a way to bring Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, both run by Mr. Abbas and Fatah.

A more representative P.L.O. could hold new elections for a more representative Palestinian Authority, which would have much more credibility in both Gaza and the West Bank, this thinking goes. But it would also require a weakened Hamas to agree to accept the existence of Israel and commit to negotiating a Palestinian state alongside it.

“Right now the Palestinian people have no hope, but a real peace process could do that, and Hamas could be part of it,” said Qadura Fares, a former authority minister. “In the P.L.O., we need all Palestinian factions together.”

Bringing Hamas inside a new Palestinian Authority might also be a way to finesse what to do with the group, shunned by Israel and the West.

“They cannot finish Hamas — you can’t finish something in the hearts of the people,” said Munir Zughir, one of whose sons is a prominent Hamas prisoner and another who is avoiding arrest for his involvement with the group. “The world won’t deal with Hamas, but they will through the P.A.”

But who can succeed Mr. Abbas?

Some have focused on Marwan Barghouti, 64, who is serving five consecutive life terms in Israeli prison for killings committed during the first and second intifadas, which he led, but who could be part of a larger prisoner exchange to help end the war.

The latest polls of the Arab Barometer, which studies opinion in the Middle East and North Africa, show Mr. Barghouti considerably more popular in Gaza than Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas leader in Gaza, or Mr. Abbas.

Another alternative, though he remains a divisive figure, could be Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah leader from Gaza, overthrown by Hamas in 2007 and since outcast by Mr. Abbas. Mr. Dahlan, 62, now lives in the United Arab Emirates.

What matters most is a new commitment by the United States to provide Palestinians a realistic prospect for an independent state, said Mr. Saidam, the senior Fatah official.

“The marginalization of the Palestinians by the United States, the cutting of funds and successive right-wing Israeli governments have all led to this desperately dangerous situation,” Mr. Saidam said. “Will the U.S. administration be serious this time?”

“Any political solution that brings a Palestinian state into being will be a soothing factor,” he said. “But if we go back to ‘a process,’ to empty talks, to lack of seriousness, to another round of photo ops, this is not going to lead us anywhere.”

Rami Nazzal and Mark Landler contributed reporting from Ramallah, and Yara Bayoumy from Jerusalem.