This has been a very bad year for the institutions that sustain the Palestinian non-state in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority’s credibility and legitimacy are under constant erosion as President Mahmoud Abbas serves the thirteenth year of his four-year term and continues to crack down on all opposition and dissent. The latest false start in Fatah-Hamas reconciliation has left Palestinians even more disillusioned with their political leadership than they otherwise were. On top of the internal Palestinian dynamics, the U.S. has been hammering away at Palestinian institutions on a number of fronts. The nearly universal and bipartisan support for the Taylor Force Act has shown a new willingness to punish the PA for its misdeeds, and President Donald Trump’s general anger with Abbas and the PA for everything from its reaction to his Jerusalem announcement to its snubbing visiting American officials has certainly left it more isolated than before. Not content to stop with the PA, the Trump administration has also been going after the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the body responsible for providing education and healthcare to Palestinian refugees, reducing the funding that the U.S. provides for UNRWA’s budget and threatening to cut it off altogether.
Not only are these moves emotionally satisfying, they are in some ways also logical policy. The PA is a plutocratic and authoritarian entity that cannot credibly maintain that it represents anyone. One need not look very hard to find PA officials and literature inciting against the U.S. and Israel. Despite the fact that the PA passionately describes its payments to prisoners and their families as a necessary social welfare system, it is constructed in a way that incentivizes attacks on Israelis by escalating payments based on the severity of the attack and the resulting prison sentence handed down. The PA was also supposed to be a temporary body established to implement an interim agreement, and a quarter century later it has done almost nothing to create institutions or norms of good governance, or prepare the ground for a functioning and capable Palestinian state. From this angle, continuing to support the PA or prop it up in the face of challengers does not look like sound policy that will bring peace to the region or better the lives of Palestinians.
Similarly, UNRWA oversees schools that employ questionable figures and that propagate some pretty awful propaganda about Israelis and Jews. In some cases, such as during fighting in Gaza, these schools also serve as cover for Hamas and other terrorist fighters from which to launch rockets toward Israeli population centers. Even leaving aside the content that can be found in UNRWA-run schools, the organization perpetuates a cycle of detrimental reliance and victimhood that is arguably not actually helping Palestinians improve their lives. As with the PA, there is a solid argument for letting UNRWA wither away.
The problem with letting failed and unsound Palestinian institutions die is that as flawed as they are, it is not only the Palestinians who depend on them but Israel as well. For all of the PA-bashing that takes place, the one area where the PA has been unambiguously successful is the same area that Israel needs the most, which is security. People often use the anodyne catch-all phrase “security coordination” to describe what goes on between the Palestinian Authority Security Forces and the IDF without having a sense of what it actually entails. Neri Zilber and Ghaith al-Omari did a great job this week of laying out precisely what security coordination means, demonstrating how the PA saves Israelis from dangerous situations such as taking wrong turns into no-go areas and preventing terrorist attacks before they happen. These are things that the IDF would either not be able to do on its own, or would come at an enormous cost in blood and treasure. It is all the more remarkable and important when reflecting upon the fact that the IDF and the PA security forces and police never get into clashes with each other, and that the PA sustains this despite the overwhelming unpopularity of security coordination that is increasingly seen as a service for the occupation rather than a service for Palestinians. Nobody should kid themselves about why the PA does this – it is largely to maintain its own power and position – but neither should anybody kid themselves about the catastrophic consequences for Israel were the PA to disappear, no matter how distasteful it is.
The situation with UNRWA falls into this category as well. That there is a double standard for Palestinian refugees and refugees of every other nationality does not serve Palestinian interests, particularly when hanging on to refugee status and passing it down across the generations leaves Palestinians stateless in their countries of refuge and downtrodden and destitute in their own homeland. Israel bears a portion of the blame and responsibility for this, but a large measure of the responsibility and blame falls on UNRWA. The waste and mismanagement that takes place under UNRWA is also unpalatable, particularly since it relies on donor countries to sustain it. But anyone who has been to a Palestinian refugee camp will immediately grasp why choking off UNRWA is not a feasible solution for anyone who cares about preserving Israeli interests as well. Without the schools, medical clinics, and basic services that UNRWA provides in these places – which cannot be easily replaced since the camps do not fall under PA jurisdiction – Israel would be staring down a humanitarian disaster that would not be contained by the Green Line or the security barrier. For better or worse, UNRWA has become indispensable, and while there is no question that it should be reformed and reorganized, pulling off the band aid in one fell swoop and telling the Palestinians that UNRWA serves to sink or swim will lead to consequences that Israel does not want to absorb.
When Israel looks at the West Bank, it sees two institutions that look irreparably broken. But Israel has come to rely on them in a manner that mandates their continued existence. It makes for an ugly situation, but this is just one of the many factors that makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so complicated, and mandates a permanent solution sooner rather than later.