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August 14, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1709

Palestinian Authority Acts To Strengthen Its Control Of West Bank Amid Growing Power Of Terror Organizations, Fears Of Gaza-Style Coup

August 14, 2023 | By H. Varulkar and S. Schneidmann*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1709

Amid the security escalation in the West Bank and especially in Jenin, and the efforts of the Palestinian terror organizations to duplicate in the West Bank the methods used to fight Israel in the Gaza Strip,[1] the Palestinian Authority (PA) has almost completely lost its grip on security and governance in the northern West Bank.[2] One of the major manifestations of this in the last two years is the emergence of pan-organizational terror militias such as the Jenin Brigade and the Lions' Den, which are operating in Jenin and Nablus in defiance of the PA’s authority.[3]

Israel’s latest military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, in early July, highlighted the erosion of the PA’s political authority. The Palestinian public, especially in Jenin, was furious with the PA for its weakness vis-a-vis Israel and the helplessness of its security apparatuses, which did not join the terror organizations in their fight against Isael and even arrested operatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) on their way to join the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. The anger at the PA was such that, when a delegation of Fatah officials, headed by the movement's deputy-chairman Mahmoud Al-'Aloul, came to the funeral of operatives killed in the fighting with Israel in the camp, it was chased away with cries of "Out! Out!"[4] PIJ official Maher Akhras said that the expulsion of these Fatah officials was a message from “all sectors of the Palestinian people,” including Fatah activists who oppose the PA's security coordination with Israel,[5] and later also threatened that the Palestinian people would “expel the PA from the entire [West] Bank, just as it expelled it from Jenin.”[6]

The PA regards these developments as a serious threat to its authority in the West Bank and to its very survival, since they are reminiscent of the process that led to Hamas’ 2007 military coup against it in the Gaza Strip. In fact, on several occasions over the last 18 months, Fatah expressed concern that Hamas, PIJ and other armed organizations would stage a military coup against it in the West Bank. For example, on June 13, 2022, ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Gaza coup, Fatah issued a statement accusing Hamas members of “expanding their efforts to take over the West Bank.” About a year later, on May 7, 2023, Fatah’s spokesman in Gaza, Mundhir Al-Hayek, likewise accused Hamas of plotting a coup in the West Bank.[7]  Furthermore, according to Fatah activist Mounir Al-Jaghoub, in a June 26 meeting in Ankara between  PA President Mahmoud ‘Abbas and Hamas Political Bureau head Isma’il Haniya, the former conveyed that the PA would not allow “a duplication of the Gaza model in the West Bank.”[8]

Hamas and PIJ leaders, for their part, deny having any such intentions. In a July 9 interview with the Iranian news agency IRNA, PIJ Secretary-General Ziad Al-Nakhaleh denied that his organization’s efforts to establish militias throughout the West Bank were an attempt to weaken the PA or to prepare for a military coup against it.[9] Hamas Political Bureau head Isma’il Haniya likewise stressed, in his meeting in Turkey with PA President ‘Abbas, that Hamas was not interested in attacking or overthrowing the PA,[10] but his statements apparently failed to reassure the PA.

In this situation, the PA finds itself caught between two conflicting imperatives: restraining the terror organizations that are establishing themselves in the West Bank at its expense, and regaining its popularity and preserving its support base among the public. This dilemma is especially difficult given that the PA's control is being challenged even from within. Some of the armed militiamen defying its authority are members of its own military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Furthermore, members of the PA’s security apparatuses have lately been involved in terror operations.[11] 

Another complicating factor for the PA is that strengthening its control of the West Bank is not just an internal need but also a demand coming from without, namely from the U.S., Egypt and Jordan, which in the recent months have been acting jointly as mediators between the PA and Israel. CIA Director William Burns reportedly stressed to ‘Abbas, in their meeting on January 30, that the PA must restore its control over the West Bank and restrain the various terror militias active there. [12] Similar messages were reportedly conveyed to ‘Abbas one day later, in his meeting with the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, ‘Abbas Kamel, and his Jordanian counterpart Ahmad Husni. They relayed that, in return for the cessation of Israel's military activity in the PA territories, the PA security apparatuses are expected to take charge of the situation there.[13] That day ‘Abbas also met with U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken, who pressed him to adopt a plan for regaining security control of the West Bank drafted by U.S. Security Coordinator Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel.[14]  Following the meeting it was reported that the PA had agreed to this plan in principle.[15]  The security coordination channel between the PA and Israel set up by the U.S., Egypt and Jordan yielded the summits in Aqaba (February 2023) and in Sharm Al-Sheikh (March 2023). But then the contacts reached an impasse and no further summits have been scheduled to date.[16]  Israel refuses to stop its counterterrorism activity in the West Bank aimed at neutralizing threats that have not been eliminated by the PA, whereas the PA regards this activity as a violation of past understandings with it, and refuses to be perceived by the Palestinian public as collaborating with Israel. 

The PA is evidently dealing with this bind in several ways simultaneously. First, it is increasing the visibility of its leaders in the West Bank, especially in its northern part, reinforcing its security apparatuses there and highlighting its concern for the citizens in the media. Furthermore, in the recent days President 'Abbas took a dramatic and surprising measure when he issuied a presidential decree "sending to retirement" most of the district governors in the West Bank, apparently due to their failure to curb the terror organization in their districts.[17] In addition, it is carrying out an extensive wave of arrests against armed operatives from various factions, and is reportedly even offering them jobs in the PA apparatuses in return for laying down their arms. At the same time, it continues to express public support for the local armed fighters and their struggle against Israel, so as to maintain its popularity with the locals and the legitimacy of its rule and avoid being perceived as collaborating with Israel. 


Gunmen of the Jenin Brigade (Source: Alresalah.ps. December 13, 2022)       

This report reviews the measures taken by the PA to strengthen its control over the West Bank and preempt a coup against it.

Strengthening PA Presence, Demonstrating Control Of Jenin And Other West Bank Cities, Replacing District Governors

Several days after the conclusion of the Israeli operation in the Jenin refugee camp and the expulsion of the Fatah delegation from the camp, the Saudi news site Elaph reported that President Mahmoud 'Abbas had ordered the PA security forces to do everything necessary to regain control of the camp, establish law and order there and rout out any armed operatives not under the authority of the PA.[18] On July 7, a significant reinforcement of the PA's security forces was reported in the districts of Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm, and  Presidential Guard forces entered the Jenin refugee camp.[19] At the same time, masked fighters from Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades held shows of force in the various West Bank  districts, carrying Fatah flags and symbols. However, anti-PA media outlets claimed that these men were not really fighters of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, but rather members of the PA security forces wearing uniforms of the Al-Aqsa Brigades.[20]


One of the shows of force held by masked Fatah fighters across the West Bank (Source: 3aks-t.info, July 10, 2023)

Alongside these shows of force, a Fatah delegation led by the movement's deputy chairman, Mahmoud Al-'Aloul, made another visit to Jenin at the behest of President 'Abbas.[21] The new visit was apparently intended to fix the impression left by the expulsion of the previous Fatah delegation from the funeral of the men killed in the fighting with Israel, and to show that the residents of the refugee camp actually support Fatah.[22]

In addition, the PA worked to repair the damage in the Jenin refugee camp as a result of the Israeli military operation, and took care to highlight this in the media. For example, it established a government committee for the rehabilitation of Jenin and announced that it had allocated NIS 7 million for this purpose. Also, Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh stressed that technical teams were working to reconnect the refugee camp to the water, power and communication infrastructures.[23] Many reports and articles in the PA's official media emphasized its commitment to the rebuilding of Jenin.[24]  The PA ministers of the interior, health and local government visited Jenin and promised to support it and its reconstruction.[25] In a visit to the Jenin district police station, Interior Minister Ziad Hab Al-Reeh declared that the PA would not tolerate chaos of any kind and would defend its institutions at any cost, and promised a NIS 400 pay raise for members of the PA security forces.[26]

The PA's efforts to restore its standing in the West Bank and especially in Jenin culminated in a high-profile visit by President 'Abbas to the Jenin refugee camp, held about a week after the conclusion of the Israeli operation there, during which he emphasized his support for the refugee camp but also conveyed threatening messages – to Israel but no less so to the rival Palestinian factions – that in Jenin there is only one authority and one law, and that anyone trying to harm the people's unity would be punished. He said: "[We are here] in the resolute and heroic Jenin [refugee] camp, which is an icon and a symbol of struggle, steadfastness and defiance… We have come to observe the reconstruction of the camp and of the city [and to make sure] that they are being restored to their former state and even improved. We have no choice but to take this action, in defiance of anyone who wishes to defeat and attack us. We will not accept attacks by anyone and will continue to stand fast and endure our suffering patiently. We will remain in our land and not leave it, until Allah grants [us] the land and what is on it, and until [the Israelis] leave our land, which they have defiled for decades… The PA is here to show you its support for the Jenin refugee camp and for the residents of the city of Jenin, and to demonstrate that it represents one rule, one state, one law and one [source of] security and stability. I say to everyone that this land will continue to be one, with a single [source of] security… Any hand that threatens the unity, security and stability of the people will be cut off…"[27]

The PA press published many articles praising the president's visit, but there were also reports about demonstrations of anti-PA sentiment during it. For example, according to the Quds Press website, Jenin District Governor Akram Al-Rajoub was forced to cancel a meeting between refugee camp residents and President 'Abbas, because most of the families of the fighters killed during the Israeli military operation refused to attend this meeting.[28] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that the reception for 'Abbas was poorly attended by local residents, and that his speech was interrupted with calls of praise for the Jenin Brigade. There was also criticism of the extensive deployment of PA security forces ahead of the visit, and locals wondered where all these forces had been during Israel's operation in the refugee camp.[29]


'Abbas' visit to the Jenin refugee camp (Source: Wafa.ps, July 12, 2023)

The PA is acting to make its presence felt not only in Jenin but throughout the West Bank. For example, Interior Minister Ziad Hab Al-Reeh recently toured the Jenin, Tubas, Qalqilya, Tulkarm and Salfit districts. In meetings he held with local governors, commanders of the PA apparatuses and Fatah branch heads, he stressed that the PA will support them as they perform their duty and maintain order, and that President 'Abbas has ordered to prevent any attempt to undermine the state apparatuses.[30]

The PA's efforts to display its control on the ground have occasionally lead to exchanges of fire with various terror militias, as happened on August 2 in Nablus' Balata refugee camp after the PA security forces removed barricades set up by the terror organizations.[31]

Another dramatic and surprising measure taken by the PA to strengthen its control over the West Bank is a presidential decree issued by 'Abbas on August 10, in which he "sent to retirement" most of the PA governors in the West Bank, specifically the governors of Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Tubas, and Jericho and the Jordan Valley.[32]  Reports indicate that the reason for their dismissal is dissatisfaction with their performance on the part of President 'Abbas, PLO Secretary-General Hussien Al-Sheikh and Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj,  who were disappointed with the governors' failure to curb the terror organizations and militias in their districts.[33] Some reports claim that 'Abbas also took this measure on the advice of Jordan, which warned about a dangerous weakening of the PA vis-à-vis the armed militias in the West Bank.[34] Other reports claimed that the decision had been made following meetings held by Hussein Al-Sheikh with the head of Israel's internal security services and with American and Arab officials as part of the PA's  security understandings with Israel, the U.S., Egypt and Jordan.[35]

2. Wave Of Arrests Of Terror Organization Members In Jenin And Other PA Districts

In addition, the PA has been working to restrain and weaken the terrorist organizations and gunmen in Jenin and other West Bank districts through an extensive wave of arrests. It appears that many dozens have been arrested. A PIJ official in Jenin told the Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid on August 2 that more than 40 PIJ activists had been arrested in that city alone, and added that he did not know the total number of arrests made throughout the West Bank. On July 30 the daily reported that at least 63 Hamas operatives had been arrested in the West Bank.[36]

The arrests sparked fury among the armed factions. Hamas and PIJ officials viciously attacked the PA, calling on it to stop these "political arrests" and free the people already detained. After the PA refused, PIJ Secretary-General Ziad Al-Nakhaleh boycotted the July 30 meeting between the Palestinian faction heads in Egypt, which had been initiated by President 'Abbas.[37]  

The Jenin Brigade likewise decried the arrest of its members and on July 17 issued a statement accusing the PA of violating an agreement made with it ahead of 'Abbas' visit to Jenin. The brigade claimed that it had facilitated the visit, allowed the PA security forces to secure 'Abbas' route through the city, and promised not to disrupt the visit, and in return the PA had promised to free PIJ detainees – a promise it later broke. The Jenin Brigade therefore called on the people of the West Bank to hold "marches of rage" against the PA.[38] Mass marches were indeed held that day in various parts of the West Bank, attended by gunmen who shouted slogans against the PA and in praise of jihad, such as "Allah is our goal, the Prophet is our model, jihad is our way, the Quran is our constitution and death for the sake of Allah is our honor."[39] The fury against the PA over the arrests even led to exchanges of fire between militiamen and the PA security forces, for instance in the Jenin refugee camp on August 2.[40] 


Gunmen and others hold marches in support of the Jenin Brigade (Source: Twitter.com/SafaPs, T.me/alresalahpress, July 17, 2023)

Even some operatives who identify as members of Fatah's military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, issued furious statement calling on the PA security forces to stop the arrests and to join the fighting against Israel. A Telegram channel called "The Tulkarm Brigade – Rapid Response," which bears the logo of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, called on the PA security forces to "mend their ways, stop persecuting the military wings of all the factions," and return to the path of past Fatah leaders, like Marwan Al-Barghouti, who had led the armed struggle against Israel. The statement added: "Be like [those leaders], and if you cannot, [at least] don't participate in the campaigns of injustice… We in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade renounce you and your actions [i.e., the arrests and the military coordination with Israel]…"[41]

The PA, for its part, denied that the arrests were "political" and claimed that it was only trying to maintain law and order. In a statement it issued, the PA Interior Ministry said that the security forces were carrying out the directive of President 'Abbas "to enforce the rule of law and provide the people with security everywhere," and that these forces would "cut off the hand of anyone trying to undermine security, stability and interests against the will of our country and our people."[42] The spokesman of the PA security forces, Gen. Talal Dweikat, told the PA news agency on July 18 that all the people arrested were suspected of crimes like "money laundering, terror financing, [illegal] possession of arms and ammunition, [and other violations of] the penal code and the cybercrime laws."[43]

In addition to the arrests, the PA is also trying to weaken the terror organizations from within. According to some reports, it is pressing the terrorists in Jenin, especially members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades,  to leave the Jenin Brigade and join its security forces instead, sometimes approaching them through their associates and family. It should be mentioned that the PA used the same method with members of the Lions' Den in Nablus.[44]

3. PA, Fatah Continue To Praise The Jenin Armed Terrorists

The contradictory nature of the PA's position towards the terror activity against Israel is evident not only in its actions but in its rhetoric. Aware of the decline in its status and the anger caused by its extensive wave of arrests against the terrorists, it is trying to quell this anger and gain popular support by openly praising these terrorists and their actions. The PA's official discourse – reflected in the press, in statements by its officials and online – continues to laud the armed struggle and even incites violence against Israel, while claiming that Fatah activists are actually leading the fighting against Israel. This is despite the fact that armed struggle is ostensibly not part of the PA's and Fatah's official program, and even though the members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades  who are involved in the armed struggle are defying the PA's authority. For example, a July 9, 2023 article in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida stressed that the 12 operatives killed in the fighting in Jenin included six Fatah members, namely members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.[45] However, the PA did not confine this praise to Fatah members, but also glorified the PIJ operatives killed in Jenin. For example, the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published a report about one of them, Majdi 'Ar'arawi, an 18-year-old member of the PIJ military wing. Although it did not note he was an armed fighter, it stated that he had earned "two shahadas" with distinction: his matriculation certificate and his martyrdom. [46]


Left: The report about Majdi 'Ar'arawi in the PA daily 
Al-Hayat Al-Jadida; right: a picture of 'Ar'arawi, armed with a rifle, on the PIJ website (Sources: Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, PA, July 21, 2023; paltoday.ps, July 22, 2023)

The PA Education Ministry posted his matriculation certificate under the title "This is his shahada, which he earned with distinction"[47]

 

* H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; S. Schneidmann is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] See Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1707 - Palestinian Terror Organizations Are Duplicating Gaza Strip Fighting Methods In West Bank – August 8, 2023.

[2] Indications of this have been evident for several years; see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1266 - Recent Violence In Nablus Reveals Rifts In Fatah, Triggers Calls For Tackling Fundamental Problems In Palestinian Society – August 31, 2016.

[5] Alresalah.ps, July 5, 2023.

[6] Paltoday.ps, July 10, 2023.

[7] Wafa.ps, June 13, 2022, May 7, 2023. Further indications of Fatah’s concern were evident in a video about the Hamas 2007 coup aired on Fatah’s Awda television channel. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 10375, Palestinian Authority TV Airs Video Smearing Hamas, Accusing It of Mismanaging the Gaza Strip, Corruption, Brutality, Abandoning the Resistance, and Collaborating with Israel,  June 16, 2023.

[8] Twitter.com/MonirAljaghoub, July 26, 2023.

[10] Aljazeera.net, July 26, 2023.

[12] Raialyoum.com, January 30, 2023.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 31, 2023, February 1, 2023; alaraby.co.uk, February 2, 2023.

[14] Axios.com, February 1, 2023.

[15] Arabicpost.net, February 2, 2023. In the following months the PA reportedly attempted to implement this plan, or some version of it (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 26, 2023; Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, February 25, March 17, 23, 2023). However, PLO Secretary-General Hussein Al-Sheikh denied that the PA had even discussed implementing a security plan drafted by external elements – American, Israeli or other. Alaraby.co.uk, February 27, 2023.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 23, 2023.

[17] Wafa.ps, August 10, 2023. The governors themselves learned of the decision from the media (qudsn.co, August 10, 2023).

[18] Elaph.com, July 8, 2023.

[19]  Sadanews.ps, shehabnews.ps, July 7, 2023.

[20] Shehabnews.ps, July 8, 2023; 3aks-t.info, July 10, 2023. According to Hamas' Shehab website, these shows of force were part of the PA's plan to regain control of Jenin, and were organized by Jenin district governor Akram Al-Rajoub (Shehabnews.ps, July 10, 2023).

[21] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), July 8, 2023.

[22] Paltimesmeps.ps, July 9, 2023.

[23] Wafa.ps, July 10, 2023.

[24] For example, a July 10 article in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida stressed that the PA authorities, under President 'Abbas, had established a government committee for the rebuilding of Jenin immediately after the conclusion of the Israeli operation, unlike Hamas, which continues to delay and impede the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip.

[25] Wafa.ps, July 9, 2023.

[26] Sadanews.ps, July 8, 2023.

[27] Wafa.ps, July 12, 2023.

[28] Qudspress.com, July 12, 2023.

[29] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 13, 2023.

[30] Wafa.ps, July 18, 2023.

[31] Felesteen.news, August 2, 2023.

[32] Wafa.ps, August 10, 2023. Among those ordered to retire were also PA governors in the Gaza Strip, namely the governors of the Gaza, Northern Gaza, Khan Younis and Rafah districts.

[33] Shahed.cc, alresalah.ps, August 10, 2023; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August  11, 2023,; arabicpost.net, August 12, 2023.

[34] Raialyoum.com, paltimeps.ps, August 11, 2023.

[35] Shahed.cc, August 10, 2023; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 12, 2023. According to yet other reports, the governors' dismissal is the first step in a major reshuffle in the PA, as part of which many long-standing position holders whose performance has been poor or sparked criticism against the PA will be replaced, and "new blood" will be brought in to revitalize the PA (asharq.com, independentarabia.com, August 11, 2023).

[36] Alaraby.co.uk, July 30, 2023, August 2, 2023.

[37] About a week before the meeting, Al-Nakhaleh threatened to boycott it unless the detainees were released, and one day before the meeting, after the PA refused to free the detainees, his deputy Muhammad Al-Hindi repeated the threat (Jehad.ps, July 23, 2023; paltoday.ps, July 29, 2023). Calls to free the "political detainees" were also heard from other Palestinian factions, such as Hamas. Movement official Hussam Badran, along with PIJ official Sa'eed Nakhaleh, demanded to stop the arrests in order to prepare the ground for the meeting (palinfo.com, July 12, 2023). Several days later Badran and PIJ official Khader Habib repeated this demand,(alresalah.ps, July 17, 2023), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) conveyed a similar message (safa.ps, July 26, 2023). The PFLP – Central Command and the Al-Sa'iqa faction stated that they would boycott the meeting because of the arrests (qudsn.co, July 26, 2023). At the meeting itself, Hamas Political Bureau Head Isma'il Haniya urged the PA to stop the arrests (hamas.ps, July 30, 2023). The PA, for its part, ignored all these demands. 

[38] T.me/sarayajneen, July 17, 2023; npa.ps, July 18, 2023. Jenin governor Akram Al-Rajoub denied the existence of any agreement with the Jenin Brigade, and emphasized that President 'Abbas "can go wherever he wishes whenever he wishes, and does not need to mediate or negotiate with anyone or gain anyone's permission (sadanews.pa, July 17, 2023).

[39] Twitter.com/SafaPS, July 17, 2023.

[40] Alaraby.co.uk, August 2, 2023.

[41] T.me/alredalsrey, July 17, 2023. Other statements issued by "the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades Rapid Response Groups Tulkarm Brigade" came out against the claim that the members of the group were criminals, stressed that they are determined to keep fighting despite the arrests, and harshly slammed the PA. T.me/alredalsrey, July 17, 18, 2023.

[42] Al-Ayyam (PA), wafa.ps, July 18, 2023.

[43] Wafa.ps, July 13, 18, 2023.a

[44] Shehabnews.com, July 10, 2023; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 27, 2023.

[45] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), July 9, 2023.

[46] Shahada in Arabic means both "martyrdom" and "certificate."

[47] Facebook.com/Palestinian.MOE/posts/57865340443963, July 20, 2023.

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