How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, tensions between Israel and Palestine have risen over new illegal settlements, the possible opening of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and the declining outlook for the two-state solution. For its part, the Israeli right is overjoyed at the idea of an uncritical U.S. administration potentially willing to allow Israel to fully annex Jerusalem. Taking advantage of the current climate, the Israeli Knesset even passed a bill legalizing West Bank outposts considered illegal under international law. The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, has threatened to withdraw the recognition of Israel put forward by the Palestine Liberation Organization and to dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA). Further, ongoing unity talks between Hamas and Fatah seem to be productive. Thus, it stands to reason that if the West Bank and Gaza are once again united under a single leadership, the collapse of the two-state solution would have profound effects on the entirety of the Palestinian population in both territories. In the event that the two-state solution collapses and the PA fails as a safety valve, Palestinians could resort to varying methods of resistance to survive in an increasingly suffocating environment.
But it has been 23 years since the PA first attempted to build a state without sovereignty, and its project has affected how Palestinians mobilize and coordinate. Since the inception of the PA, activists and opposition leaders have voiced concerns over its increasing authoritarianism. They have complained about the hollowing out of civil society organizations, arrests, torture, and a crackdown on academic and media freedom. Over time, Palestinian society has grown more polarized, which has made it more difficult for different groups to coordinate with each other.
And in fact, from an Israeli perspective, an authoritarian PA was one of the main reasons for the body’s creation. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin clearly stated that Israel could outsource its repression of Palestinians to an increasingly militarized PA. That way, it would avoid being held accountable by internal and external critics as an occupying power.
But the polarization that has resulted from the PA system could lead to more violence. Research by Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern Univesity has shown that the way political mobilization manifests itself often depends on the levels of fragmentation between groups involved. Consider the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993 (prior to the PA’s existence). Since Palestinian society at the time contained lower levels of fragmentation, the uprising remained largely cohesive and nonviolent. The opposite was the case for the second intifada, running from 2000 to 2005. At that time, groups had become much more fragmented and, thus, much more violent. The second intifada was characterized, for example, by an overwhelming use of suicide bombing. Palestinian fatalities also increased severely compared with those resulting from the first intifada. In terms of political gains, the second intifada accomplished much less for the Palestinians.
The polarization that has resulted from the PA system could lead to more violence.
In my recent research within the Palestinian territories, I found that authoritarian practices in and of themselves can generate polarization and fragmentation, which leads to less effective mobilization. Authoritarian strategies, such as repression or co-optation, create insularity within targeted groups and grievances among them. Take, for example, the Islamist groups, such as Hamas affiliates or Islamic Jihad, that operate in the West Bank. These groups have become more insular for fear of repression by both the PA and Israel. For instance, they increasingly rely on “lone wolf” tactics and operate with utmost secrecy using word of mouth. They also resort to more violent measures as other types of political engagement, such as elections (even at the university level), become increasingly off-limits. This is in direct contrast to Hamas operations prior to the PA’s crackdown, which included charity services and civil society organizations operating much more freely than they do today. And the activists I spoke with in the West Bank noted that grievances between Islamists and other political groups have exacerbated, making cooperation between them much less prevalent.
Throughout my research, I also found that respondents expressed more polarized views when faced with certain authoritarian strategies, particularly repression. Repression strategies include summons for interrogation, crackdown on mobilizations, and arrests. The more marginalized the group (such as Islamists affiliated with Hamas), the more polarized their viewpoints. I also found that those affiliated with opposition groups were more likely to refuse coordination with others across the political spectrum. Even when there was an overlap on policy goals, marginalized groups refused to cooperate on joint campaigns with those outside their inner circles.
Such a dynamic bodes badly for organized collective action. Since Palestinian society is highly fragmented and polarized, it becomes more difficult for groups to work together for the sake of a common goal. Challenges to the safety and well-being of Palestinian society may arise (as in the case of total Israeli annexation), and yet Palestinian groups will not be able to agree on a united path forward under current conditions. And, as we have seen from past experience (particularly the second intifada), a lack of coordination increases the level of violence. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Increased crackdowns from an external power might trigger more violent responses, and a lack of coordination means groups can’t agree to face the repression with a unified nonviolent approach based on shared principles. There is also the possibility of “outbidding,” when groups increasingly engage in greater and greater violence to convince their public that they have the greatest resolve. Whatever the mechanism, the increased polarization leads to less coordination and thus more violence.
The PA has been one of the only sources of stability in the territories since its creation, where grass-roots organizations once served the population. But the PA’s externally backed shift to authoritarianism will have consequences. If the Israeli government, encouraged by the Trump administration, decides that it no longer cares about working with the PA, and PA leadership indeed withdraws its endorsement of the peace process, we can expect Palestinians to react.
The Palestinian reaction, however, will not be organized as it once was in the past. As it stands, organizations with effective tactics and wide-ranging public support no longer exist in Palestine. Given these dynamics, Israelis will face greater insecurity and Palestinians greater repression. Without the means to coordinate effectively, desperate people will increasingly turn to violent means, which bodes ill for both sides of this conflict.