PA launches reforms aimed at revitalization, but structural changes remain elusive

Under international pressure to tee up to rule Gaza, Ramallah announces package to restructure various branches of its administration, but some see the step as merely cosmetic

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 17, 2023. (AP/Nasser Nasser, Pool)
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 17, 2023. (AP/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced a comprehensive reform program Monday aimed at revitalizing the Palestinian Authority amid US demands that changes be implemented before Ramallah can take civilian control of Gaza once fighting there ends.

The package, launched under the auspices of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, will notably include the appointment of new regional governors, after twelve of them were sacked by Abbas in August without him announcing a reason. However, critics noted that many of the reforms will leave the same leadership in power and change little on the ground, falling short of widely impactful moves seen as necessary to rebuild trust in the apparatus.

“They might fire a few people here and there, but unless there is a genuine and structural change in leadership and fresh blood coming – no way this will have any impact,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a Middle East researcher and former Knesset member.

The proposed reforms also include changes in how security forces are recruited, liberalization of the media market and a restructuring of the health sector, including the provision of universal healthcare.

Senior PA officials quoted by Haaretz said that the measures were requested by the United States in line with plans pushed by Washington for a “revitalized PA” to rule over Gaza once Israel concludes its war aimed at ousting Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his coalition partners have rejected the prospect of the PA ruling over Gaza, but have not detailed an alternative vision.

Abbas recently submitted the reform program to donor countries, according to the Al Quds newspaper. The Fatah leader also reiterated his call to hold general elections and open them to all factions, in a bid to reconcile with the political wing of Hamas and return it under the control of the PLO.

Abbas spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said last week that were Hamas to win elections, Fatah would agree to hand it the government, sparking controversy.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh is sworn in as a deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, on April 13, 2019. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

The terror group carried out a massive onslaught on Israel on October 7 in which it murdered some 1,200 people in the south of the country, most of them civilians, in acts of unspeakable brutality. Hamas and other terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages, mostly civilians, into Gaza; 132 are still being held.

Israel responded with a military campaign with the stated goal of destroying Hamas, eradicating it from power in Gaza and releasing the hostages.

Elections in the Palestinian territories were last held in 2006, and were won by Hamas. The terror group staged a violent takeover of Gaza a year later, wresting it from the PA, which continued to be controlled by Abbas’s Fatah party. Abbas has perennially postponed elections since.

In preparation for the possibility that a revitalized Palestinian Authority will return to rule over the coastal strip, Al Quds reported that Ramallah has instructed its government departments to follow up on the work of the corresponding bodies run by Hamas in the coastal enclave.

Palestinians chant slogans and wave yellow Fatah movement flags during a rally marking the 18th anniversary of the death of Fatah founder and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The reform plan further includes the appointment of new judges to the Palestinian Supreme Administrative Court and ambassadors to fill vacant seats, improvements to the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission, as well as legal changes to existing provisions in the tax code and competition legislation.

In addition, it will open the way for a restructuring and merger of some government departments, the establishment of a national water company and the completion of works to the water supply system in various areas of the West Bank.

The moves fall far short of a proposal pushed by the US and its allies in recent weeks that would transfer many of Abbas’s presidential powers to the prime minister, leaving the 88-year-old autocrat in a largely ceremonial role.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in the West Bank city Ramallah, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)

Critics say the reform package announced by Shtayyeh comprises little more than cosmetic measures aimed at appeasing the US administration and the international community

“It is just to give the impression that they are trying to do something,” said Samer Sinijlawi, a Palestinian political activist from East Jerusalem.

“Nearly every year, [Palestinian Prime Minister] Muhammad Shtayyeh announces a plan of reforms,” said Sinijlawi, recalling that Ramallah submitted a comprehensive 21-point reform agenda to European donor countries in Brussels in May 2022, which also contained improvements to the administration, healthcare, and the economic, legal and educational systems.

“The Palestinian people, before the Americans, should have a say in this. Polls show that 90 percent of the Palestinians say Abbas should leave. So the minimum we should expect is for Abbas to hand over all his powers to a strong, reliable, accountable, trustworthy prime minister that can bring Gaza and the West Bank together, that can restore unity inside Fatah and bring an end to internal divisions. These are the reforms Palestinians are expecting to see.”

Svetlova echoed the criticism.

“It’s hard to believe it’s a real deal,” she said. “To reform [the Palestinian Authority], they need to get rid of all the corrupt apparatus that is leading it, start building new state institutions, and opt for elections.”

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