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.
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.
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 hospitals, in the main square of Ramallah, dancing at Palestinian weddings. After one particularly brazen Israeli raid, during which Israeli troops actually appeared to stand guard outside a Palestinian police station, young Palestinians actually 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 protesters and stone-throwers from approaching Israeli checkpoints. Palestinian police 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.
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 cessation.
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 autonomy.
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.