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Beyond sovereignty and UN recognition: internal challenges to building a resilient Palestinian state

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal


So the outcome of the application for recognition of an independent Palestinian state remains unclear.  To some, this move by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations was at best defeatist and at worst unnecessarily confrontational. But it also embodies a legitimate diplomatic strategy that has placed the Palestinian question at the centre of international debate, and may yet blow fresh wind into a peace negotiation process that has all but stalled.

And yet a focus on UN recognition and sovereignty somehow misses the point. International recognition is certainly an indispensable component of modern statehood (and the foundation of the international system), but it may not be enough to deliver a resilient and sustainable state over the long term.

The occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is formally “ready” for statehood. The World Bank practically said as much in 2010. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has laid out an ambitious vision for building a Palestinian state.  As part of this, the PNA has made considerable progress in building and strengthening the formal institutions of the state, and in delivering results for basic services, economic management and security – at least in the West Bank. The international community is broadly supportive of the PNA’s vision, and there is a sense that now is the time to act on this state-building agenda.

Clearly a fully viable and sovereign state cannot emerge without a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and an end of the occupation. The oPt confronts a long list of international and regional challenges that it cannot resolve on its own: a stalled peace process and lack of a defined timeframe on Final Status negotiations, a tightening of the Israeli occupation and ongoing settlement activity, economic dependence on Israel, and largely ineffective international engagement in state-building efforts. In addition, regional dynamics feed on the conflict and generate incentives towards division and fragmentation within the territory.

But there are also serious challenges that are internally driven. These are influenced by external factors, but their root causes lie within the governance structures of the PNA and the linkages between the Palestinian authority and Palestinian society. They are also key drivers of fragility.

Fundamentally, the oPt is fragile not only because of the unresolved conflict with Israel but also because of acute internal divisions.  In practice, the PNA is not the only authority throughout the territory. While the PNA controls the West Bank, its mandate is contested by the Islamist Hamas movement, which became the de facto Palestinian authority in Gaza in 2007 following conflict between Fatah and Hamas.

Despite attempts at reconciliation, this internal conflict remains unresolved and there is no basic agreement on the fundamental rules of the game among contending elites. But as research on state-building suggests, a state is unlikely to be viable in the absence of a binding political settlement, and there can be no real peace or stability without such basic consensus.

Moreover, the nature and quality of state–society relations in the oPt is weak and fragmented. The PNA in the West Bank and the de facto authority in Gaza are both characterised by tenuous accountability, and lack legitimacy in the eyes of a large part of the population. Formal institutions are considered highly corrupt, inept, unresponsive, and even repressive. The majority of people in the oPt do not identify with either Fatah or Hamas, and there are limited meaningful channels of political expression and engagement that give them effective voice and link them to the state.

The role of the international community and regional dynamics in exacerbating internal tensions should not be overlooked. High aid dependence has contributed to the de-linking of the PNA from the population it is intended to represent. Hamas’s reliance on external patrons has done much the same. In addition, the current political situation in the oPt is in part the result of aid decisions made in the aftermath of the 2006 elections, won by Hamas in a process was considered free and fair. Internal conflict at the political level and ongoing international policy not to recognise Hamas as a relevant political player threaten to derail much of the state-building agenda. How, for example, will elections (which have been postponed indefinitely) be held, and how will the Palestinian Legislative Council (which has been non-functioning since 2007) be reconstituted if existing political constraints remain? Additionally, given the limited legitimacy of the PNA, the current focus of international state-building efforts on the PNA itself rather than on providing channels to express diverse views on the ground may undermine the very objective of establishing a single, unified Palestinian state that encompasses both the West Bank and Gaza.

While all eyes are on the diplomatic drama unfolding at the United Nations, the international community would do well to reconsider its ongoing approach to state-building in the oPt. State institutions may be meaningless without real sovereignty, but sovereignty alone is likely to be a hollow promise. As the latest World Development Report highlights, states are particularly susceptible to fragility if a political settlement isn’t at least minimally inclusive, if institutions on the ground are unaccountable, and if they lack legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Neither UN recognition nor the resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (however immediate or remote) can resolve the oPt’s internal challenges. It is therefore imperative for the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza and the international community to act jointly to address them.