The projected Gaza-Jericho autonomy is only the beginning of the road for the Palestinians, not an end in itself. Amid the increased Israeli-Palestinian violence and the obstacles remaining after Israel withdraws from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, a Palestinian state is being created. The symbols and trappings and the political and economic arrangements could loosely identify Gaza as the first Palestinian state, as soon as Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasir Arafat establishes his administration in Jericho, a task that could be accomplished by early this summer.

The immediate question that arises, then, is what will be the nature of a future Palestinian state. Will it be democratic, pluralistic, secular and stable, or yet another version of Arab regimes and states that have characterized and dominated the region for the past six or seven decades?

Regrettably, a Palestinian state ruled by Arafat and his PLO cronies will likely be authoritarian, noninclusive and undemocratic. Such a state will be controlled by Arafat’s security services, which will do all that is necessary to keep themselves in power. This scenario will no doubt cheer Israeli settlers and Palestinian radicals who have vehemently and violently opposed the Israeli-PLO agreement. But it does not augur well for political pluralism, participation and, above all, institutionalization, that is, the creation of a democratic and stable Palestinian state.


Palestine is on the road to becoming what Samuel Huntington has defined as a praetorian state. Such states have a low level of political institutionalization and a fractured political structure in a unstable political climate. They are not necessarily military-dominated but are rigid, top-heavy and lack a viable middle class. For such states, political stability and a democratic or even pluralistic regime are unachievable.

Gaza and to a lesser extent the West Bank have no political competition and no administrative structure to satisfy the pent-up political demands of a population that has lived under Egyptian, Jordanian or Israeli occupation since 1948. Social classes are fragmented and incapable of unified political action other than resistance, violence, defiance and terrorism.

Unfortunately, the only cohesive political force in Gaza is the anti-secular, radical Muslim Hamas movement. The only effectively organized political party is a small communist party. Professional associations of engineers, lawyers, doctors, journalists and academics provide only a skeleton crew for the creation or development of complex, cohesive and competitive political parties.

For a stable, Western-style democratic regime to succeed, a broad and cohesive middle class with the capacity for political mobilization is needed. Neither Gaza nor the West Bank meet this condition. The West Bank has a small, articulate and vocal middle class, but it remains essentially a traditional society, which is one reason the fundamentalists there have had such success. In Gaza, this low level of institutionalization is understandable, given the long history of occupation, but makes the prospects for stability and democracy less promising.


When Arafat and the PLO move into their new capital in Jericho, marking the first phase of Palestinian autonomy, it will be a sharp contrast for them, transplanted from the Mediterranean city of Tunis to this dusty city, a wretched village in the Judaean desert that has remained undeveloped since 1949, when the Jordanians occupied the West Bank and set it up as a refugee camp among the archeological digs of the walls of Jericho. The bleak setting is an apt metaphor for Arafat’s prospects in taking over the rule of Jericho, Gaza and Khan Yunis, the three municipalities that make up the autonomy.

Since signing the Oslo accords on September 13, 1993, Arafat and the PLO have done little to show that they are ready to rule or have the desire to engage in electoral politics. Rather, the PLO remains what it has always been, a loosely constructed terrorist-guerrilla-propaganda structure whose cohesiveness is based on loyalty to the man at the top. Arafat clings to this preference for a secretive government that depends on loyalty to his person and leadership.

Like their leader, the PLO officials are old-time revolutionaries and functionaries from Tunis. Three Arafat loyalists are set to administer Gaza, Jericho and Khan Yunis, but Arafat has appointed more officials to cover the same positions, thus enabling him to arbitrate competing interests. Furthermore, Arafat will have to deal with thousands of Intifada veterans after their release by Israeli authorities. These are embittered and proud men who feel they created the conditions for autonomy and independence and whose loyalty to Arafat and the PLO diaspora is open to question.

Nevertheless, 9,000 former soldiers of the PLO army, or about three divisions, most of them undistinguished fighters who survived the debacle of the PLO’s ouster from Lebanon in 1982, form the foundation of Arafat’s police organization. They arrived with their families, all strangers to the area, to join the local PLO-Fatah contingents of Intifada fighters. Because they have the onerous duty of collaborating with the Israeli police during the interim period, they will probably be seen as traitors.

In the projected triangular political struggle among Arafat’s Tunis-based PLO, the radicals of the Intifada in Gaza and the West Bank and the Hamas movement, Arafat will have to rely heavily on his security services, Mukhabarat, the old terrorist machine that has protected him from the Israelis, dissident Palestinians and Arab foes for so long. As a result, the police will have some military functions, while the security services, rather than the political parties, human rights organizations or other institutions, will become the foundation of Arafat’s political power and administrative domination.

In the name of defending Arafat and his Tunis lieutenants, the security services will come into open and no doubt deadly confrontation with the quasi-military Hamas, which dominates the streets of Gaza. Although Arafat may claim that the creation of such a strong police and security organization is a necessary emergency action, in reality it is the first step in maintaining political control. This is nothing new for the region, Syria and Iraq depend entirely on their vast and complex security services, as opposed to a pluralistic electorate and political parties, to maintain power. The Baath party is an army-party, and Arafat will, in accordance with Israeli demands, run Gaza-Jericho with the PLO security services. Such a scenario amounts to a makeshift police state.


Ideologically, the PLO is secular, yet Arafat will have to contend with and accommodate powerful traditional forces. The case of Hebron is instructive. The mountain of Hebron was never a nationalist fortress in Palestinian politics. It is tribal, traditional and Islamic in its political behavior. The PLO activists in Hebron are splintered with internecine rivalries. There is no leading PLO figure unless Arafat imposes one from above.

Most Intifada supporters were not part of the Israeli-PLO negotiations and view the Oslo accords as a document of surrender to Israel dictated by the Israeli Defense Forces. Hamas became an important political movement in 1987 during the early days of the Intifada. Since then Hamas has won nearly 40 percent of the votes of those in professional associations, university groups and other institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. It is a potent force that includes both radical Muslims and secular radical Arabs.

The danger can be seen in the streets of Gaza. The Intifada has created a generation of young people full of hostility, anger and despair and without respect for authority. To these young people, all forms of authority are inherently foreign, not to be trusted but to be fought and resisted. They would view with contempt whatever authorities emerge from the Tunis-based PLO, whose leaders are strangers to the land and many of whom have never lived in Gaza or the West Bank.

While thousands of youths resent the authoritarian Tunis-based PLO, the intellectual Arab leaders have thrown in the towel. Sari Nusseibah, a philosophy professor at Birzeit University, has left. There is no significant role in Arafat’s executive committee for Faisal al-Husseini, the acknowledged leader of the moderate nationalists of the West Bank and Jerusalem and a potential rival, except to use him for his own purpose. Hanan Ashrawi, the English-speaking voice of the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks, has formed a human rights group to monitor the new self-government. On the whole, the Palestinian intellectuals are a disgruntled and despairing lot.

The Palestinian intellectuals who remain in several West Bank-Gaza universities have organized pro-democracy rallies and groups, but there are no center-moderate, middle-class political parties and organizations to mobilize them, leaving the field to the small, well-organized communist party and the forces of Hamas. The professional associations have not managed to create political organizations that could build a working democracy, parliamentary procedures or effective institutions that could make Gaza-Jericho and later an independent Palestinian state more than yet another authoritarian, inefficient, corrupt, praetorian Arab state, something the Middle East already has a surfeit of.

Gaza is a no-man’s-land, rife with violence and the potential for disastrous misrule. This area has endured years of strikes and curfews. Unemployment runs close to 50 percent, a figure destined to rise if Palestinians are not allowed to work in Israel after the autonomy administration is established.

The ultraviolent Hamas will further disrupt prospects for peace and stability. The movement will openly, energetically and sometimes violently challenge Arafat’s rule.

Given the task ahead, the apparent lack of preparation by the new rulers is surprising. Jericho has no political, administrative or physical infrastructure. The Israeli civil administration has yet to be replaced. Arafat was reluctant to name individuals to administrative positions, knowing it would probably intensify the struggle among Intifada veterans, the PLO and Hamas.

The economic picture is just as bleak. The 100,000 or so employees licensed to work in Israel will return only in small numbers, and not for a while. Israel is already importing foreign workers from Asia and the Balkans. Arafat has yet to establish a financial and administrative body to deal with international donors and their contributions. In short, with no PLO-Palestinian central authority, Arafat and his Tunis-based PLO executives are woefully unprepared for the task at hand in both practical and psychological terms.

A stable and democratic Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank is an absolute must to guarantee peace and stability in the area. An authoritarian, antidemocratic, violence-riddled Gaza, the hope of Israeli militants, is a prospect fraught with danger for all parties. Yet events show that the hope that Palestine will be progressive is as misplaced as the predictions 40 years ago that the Arab military regimes, the Nasserites in Egypt and the Baathists in Syria and Iraq, would eventually be dominated by a cohesive middle class and competitive political parties.

Gaza will likely join the ranks of other secular-praetorian Arab states that are continuously losing support to more aggressive and traditional radical forces. True democratic elections in Gaza will only bring the Islamic fundamentalists to power.

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  • Amos Perlmutter is Professor of Political Science at American University and Editor of The Journal of Strategic Studies.
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