The unravelling illusion of Palestinian autonomy


Palestinians have been told for decades that limited autonomy in the West
Bank is just a stop along the road to sovereignty. But more than 20 years after
Oslo failed to usher in independence, the illusion is unraveling — and fast.

Palestinian Authority police (right) together with Israeli border police
(left) control Palestinian access to Jerusalem, at the Bethlehem checkpoint on
the last Friday of Ramadan, August 17, 2012. (photo:

The key to the arrangement that keeps Israel’s occupation of Palestinian
feasible is the illusion of autonomy. Palestinians have their own government,
their own security agencies and forces, consumer service providers, schools,
and yes, autonomous areas.

But make no mistake, they are all illusions.

And every once in a while the benevolent occupiers push things a little too
far. They decide to stop playing along with their own illusion, convincing
themselves that the Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority, are so
invested in the comfort and stability they provide that they wouldn’t dare
withdraw consent.

The thing with a bad illusion is that the audience needs to consent — it
needs to practice some sort of willful suspension of disbelief. Sometimes that
collaboration is based on explicit or implicit agreements; sometimes it is
symbiosis. But when you rely on the audience for the stability of your rather
precarious act, the charade is constantly at risk of collapsing.

The Israelis security apparatus has been very worried for the past six
months or so that the gig is up — that sooner or later, Palestinian security
forces are simply going to stop playing along with the illusion, that they will
turn their weapons on Israel.

Israel relies on Palestinian security forces, loyal to PLO Chairman Mahmoud
Abbas, to protect its settlements and the entire structural integrity of the
occupation from those Palestinians who do not want to play the game. According
to the Oslo Accords, the interim contract that is supposed to regulate the
entire production, Palestinians have autonomous areas — mostly known as “Area
A.” Israel is supposed to say out of those areas, which basically comprise the
major Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas address the general debate of
the UN General Assembly’s 70th session, September 20, 2015.
(UN Photo/Cia Pak)

But Israel doesn’t always play by the rules. In fact, it hasn’t played by
the rules for a long, long time. During the Second Intifada, a time in which
both sides abandoned their roles as dictated by the game plan, drawn up in the
numbing cold of the Norwegian winter, the rule book went out the window. Israel
decided, unilaterally, that its troops would have full
freedom of movement and
action wherever they wanted, even in the “autonomous” zones.

For years, the Palestinians even played along with the new rules of the
game. An Israeli military commander would call his Palestinian subordinate and
let him know a raid was about to happen. Like clockwork, the Palestinian police
would vanish from the streets of whatever city the Israeli army felt like
exploring that evening, so as to avoid any friction.

But people started to notice. Palestinian police were asked to block
Palestinian protesters from reaching Israeli checkpoints. Israeli night raids
into the heart of Palestinian cities became more common. Undercover and
uniformed troops were often caught on surveillance cameras —
inside Palestinian
, in the main square of
, dancing at Palestinian
. After one
particularly brazen Israeli raid, during which Israeli troops actually appeared
to stand guard outside a Palestinian police station, young Palestinians
pelted their own police with stones in Ramallah’s Manara Square.

Over the past six months, things got a lot worse for Israel, the
Palestinian security apparatus, and the idea of “security coordination,” which
for proponents of maintaining the status quo has become the holy grail of the
occupation. Palestinian security forces often 
stopped preventing
and stone-throwers from approaching Israeli checkpoints. Palestinian
were filmed kicking
Israeli troops out
a Ramallah suburb. And fueling Israel’s worst fears, that 40,000 armed,
American-trained security forces might turn their weapons on the occupier,
a few Palestinian
security officers did just that

Palestinian policemen block protesters during a demonstration against the
visit of US President Barak Obama to the West Bank, Ramallah, March 21, 2013.
(photo: Keren Manor/

So in an attempt to make the Palestinian security forces feel like they
work for the Palestinian government again and not the IDF, Israel decided to
throw them a bone. A couple of top Israeli generals starting meeting with their
Palestinian subordinates to discuss the “
gradual restoration of Palestinian
security control
over West Bank cities.” Restoration. Not that anybody ever announced a

So the Israeli army proposed that it stop conducting raids in areas in
which it is not supposed to operate in, as a gesture to the people who are
helpless from stopping them in the first place. Except there’s a catch. There’s
always a catch. It’s actually a microcosm of the catch that makes a mockery of
a two-state solution, at least in the sense that the term two-state solution
implies two sovereign states.

The catch: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s one condition for
restoring Palestinian autonomy in 20 percent of the West Bank is that the
Palestinians must first recognize Israel’s sovereign right to violate that

That is the illusion in its full glory. Israel is willing to allow
Palestinians to have their illusion of sovereignty, in the form of conditional
autonomy, but only if they sign over the deed to actual sovereignty. But the
illusion requires the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief.

Palestinians have been told for decades, in the Oslo Accords and countless
other documents, that limited autonomy is just a step along the road to actual
sovereignty and statehood. Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has always stated
openly that he would never even consider relinquishing security control (read:
sovereignty) of the West Bank.
Everything else is just an
increasingly precarious charade.