Palestinians have a new government but no one is cheering

Palestinians have a new government but no one is cheering

Newly-appointed Palestinian Authority PM Mohammed Mustafa (C) chairs a cabinet meeting in Ramallah. Apr. 2, 2024 (AFP)
Newly-appointed Palestinian Authority PM Mohammed Mustafa (C) chairs a cabinet meeting in Ramallah. Apr. 2, 2024 (AFP)
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A new Palestinian government was sworn in earlier this week in Ramallah, a few weeks after the resignation of former Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, who took over in 2017. Mohammed Mustafa, a 69-year-old Palestinian economist and a close ally of President Mahmoud Abbas, now heads a 23-member Cabinet of technocrats that is described as nonpartisan. It includes six ministers from Gaza, underlining two primary objectives of the new government: postwar reconstruction and restoring the Palestinian Authority’s rule over the devastated enclave.

Mustafa’s selection was welcomed by the US, pushing Abbas, 88, to bring a new and trusted face to the political arena to reform and revitalize the PA and eradicate corruption. But while the chatter in the US State Department centered on stripping Abbas of much of his authority in favor of the new premier, in practice, Mustafa, who served for some time as the president’s economic adviser and was responsible for Gaza’s reconstruction following the 2014 Israeli attack, is unlikely to challenge his boss.

On the face of it, Mustafa, a successful businessman who has served with the World Bank, may be able to restructure the PA to regain the trust of international financial backers. But he faces an uphill struggle, as the current far-right Israeli government is putting financial constraints on the PA, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich vowing to defund the Palestinian body.

Abbas has stressed that the new government will seek to rebuild war-torn Gaza, unify the Palestinians and prepare for the holding of much-delayed legislative and presidential elections. But while he mentioned the elections, he also stated that such polls will never take place if the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not allowed to vote.

The announcement of the new government in Ramallah was met with skepticism and even cynicism

Osama Al-Sharif

The last time legislative elections were held in PA territories was in 2006, when Hamas won more seats than Fatah in the Palestinian legislature, forcing Abbas to ask Ismail Haniyeh to form a Palestinian government. That experiment was short-lived and Haniyeh was fired a year later, prompting the bloody overthrow of the PA in Gaza and the Hamas takeover.

Facing pressure from within Fatah, Abbas, who disbanded the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2018 and consolidated his power by ruling by decree, announced that legislative and presidential elections would be held in 2021. But he heeded the advice of Arab allies and decided to postpone the elections indefinitely, arguing that Israel would not allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote. Fatah was facing deep divisions, while opinion polls showed that Hamas was likely to score big in the West Bank.

Abbas also dodged pressure from the US and his Arab allies to name a successor. Opinion polls in the West Bank show that the majority of Palestinians want long-time prisoner Marwan Barghouti to head the PA. Interestingly, Hamas also expressed support for Barghouti. His name is said to be top of the list that the group recently presented to mediators as part of the ongoing prisoner swap negotiations with Israel.

The announcement of the new government in Ramallah was met with skepticism and even cynicism among the Palestinians. Hamas, fighting for its survival in Gaza, lambasted Abbas for failing to consult them and other Palestinian factions. Friction between Hamas and Fatah has spiked in the past few weeks, with both sides trading blame and accusations, especially about postwar Gaza and the PA crackdown on West Bank militants.

Meanwhile, Abbas’ popularity among Palestinians continues to plummet. A wartime opinion poll published last December revealed that almost 90 percent wanted him to resign. That was up by 10 percentage points from last October. In the West Bank, 92 percent called for the president’s resignation, with most viewing him as presiding over an administration widely seen as corrupt, autocratic and ineffective.

The future of the PA is now intrinsically linked to the outcome of the Gaza war and the day-after scenarios

Osama Al-Sharif

Israel’s war on Gaza and the massive loss of civilian life there, as well as images of stern Palestinian resistance, have boosted Hamas’ popularity, at least for now, among Palestinians in the West Bank. One also has to take into account the PA’s inability to curb daily Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank, which have resulted in hundreds of killings and thousands of arrests, in addition to the systematic destruction of infrastructure.

And since Israel waged war on Gaza, the Tel Aviv government has accelerated the confiscation of Palestinian lands and the construction of new illegal settlements in the West Bank, all of which underlines the PA’s failure to protect its people.

The future of the PA is now intrinsically linked to the outcome of the Gaza war and the day-after scenarios. For now, the new government, like the defunct one, is hamstrung by a radical Israeli government that is also waging a multi-fronted war in the West Bank and Gaza.

Added to all this is Abbas’ complete reliance on US support. The Biden administration’s position since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack has been characteristically pro-Israel, while offering lip service to Palestinian suffering in Gaza and the West Bank. Washington has failed to give the Palestinians a political horizon that would end the occupation and its timid verbal support of the two-state solution is treated with skepticism.

What the Palestinians need today is not a cosmetic change but a genuine drive to redraw the structure and context of the Palestinian national movement as it faces existential challenges not seen since 1948. The Zionist project is at a critical milestone as it ponders its push to colonize the rest of the Occupied Territories while canceling the Palestinian identity.

The future of the Palestinians and their just cause must not be decided in Ramallah and by Abbas alone — 30 years since the Oslo Accords delivered the Palestinians to this current sorry state. There is a strategic need to revive the Palestine Liberation Organization and all relevant Palestinian institutions, such as the Palestine National Council. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and beyond must have a say on how to move on from the toxic legacy of Oslo while charting a new course.

Hamas’ popularity is largely the outcome of the failures of Oslo and the PA under Abbas. It is a reaction to Israel’s ruthless policies and the genocidal war it is carrying out in Gaza. A trustworthy and credible Palestinian leadership must be restored. The current path lacks both.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010
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