The Palestinian Authority, teetering on collapse, is tested in Jenin

Images of martyrs are displayed on many walls across the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
8 min

RAMALLAH, West Bank — As hundreds of Israeli soldiers stormed into the Jenin refugee camp last week, Akram Rajoub, Jenin’s governor, was on vacation.

He rushed back the next day, gathering his team of 60 Palestinian Authority security commanders: “Stay in your office; do not engage with the Israeli armed forces,” he recalled telling them.

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He feared a confrontation between his men and Israeli soldiers could make the Palestinian Authority a military target and further erode its influence in the Jenin camp, which has descended into lawlessness over the past several years — ruled by drug dealers and gun runners, and, more recently, by loosely organized Palestinian militias that have taken up arms against Israel.

“Israel wants to collapse the PA,” said Rajoub, speaking in Ramallah, where he lives, 60 miles from the city he is in charge of running. It is just one measure of the distance that has opened up between Palestinians and their leaders.

The Israeli operation in Jenin — the largest in the West Bank in two decades — left 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead, and, Israeli politicians boasted, depleted the weapons stockpiles of new militant groups. But it also exposed the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which Israel counts on to maintain order across the occupied territory.

For Palestinians, the authority’s decision to avoid the 44-hour battle that displaced thousands of residents and covered much of the refugee camp in rubble has amplified questions over the purpose of their government, formed in 1993 to deliver on the dream of statehood. Thirty years later, under Israel’s most far-right government in history, many Palestinians view the institution as irrelevant to their lives, if not openly hostile to their cause.

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“The PA has never been weaker,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer who advised the Palestinian negotiating team during the second intifada, from 2000 to 2005.

She said Israel undermines the effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority by starving it of resources, including the confiscation of some tens of millions of dollars in monthly tax revenue. But she also believes that Mahmoud Abbas — the aging and deeply unpopular Palestinian president who has stretched his mandate from four years to two decades — has failed to adapt to a new reality.

“It’s like Abu Mazen is stuck in the 1990s; it’s a joke,” Buttu said, using Abbas’s Arabic moniker. “The only people who are still speaking about the two-state solution are Abu Mazen and the international community. Israel has moved on.”

Abbas visited Jenin on Wednesday, arriving from Ramallah in a Jordanian helicopter and flanked by several branches of his security forces. It was his first public appearance there since the last Palestinian presidential election campaign in 2005.

“If they uproot a tree, we will plant a thousand trees in its place; this is Palestine, and this is the Palestinian people,” Abbas said in the camp, after a tour of the cemetery where nine of the Palestinians killed during last week’s operation were buried. “This country, its security and authority will remain one.”

The audience gathered in front of Abbas taunted him with a chant of “Battalion! Battalion!” in reference to the Jenin Battalion, a local militant group that has become stronger in recent years.

With U.S.-led peace talks long dormant, Israeli settlements expanding across the West Bank and violent settlers intensifying their attacks on Palestinian communities, Abbas continues to speak about an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

But key members of Israel’s ruling coalition, which includes settler activists, religious conservatives and Jewish supremacists, reject the idea of a Palestinian state.

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who holds a special role in the Defense Ministry, called earlier this year for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out” by the Israeli army. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a closed cabinet meeting last month that ambitions for Palestinian statehood needed to be “crushed,” according to Israeli media reports.

President Biden, in an interview with CNN on Sunday, called Israel’s government “one of the most extreme cabinets” in decades. The Palestinian Authority, he said, has “lost its credibility,” creating “a vacuum for extremism among Palestinians.”

As the authority has retreated from asserting its jurisdiction in the northern West Bank, Palestinian militant groups have filled the void, said Toufic Haddad, a Palestinian analyst.

“The PA feels they’re not ready anymore to be the local cop, especially under this government, which is transitioning into an unapologetic, supremacist apartheid,” Haddad said.

Rajoub, the governor of Jenin, said Israeli raids make his job harder. But he also rejects the notion that reining in militant groups should fall to him: “I conduct security work that benefits us, the Palestinian people,” he said. “I’m not interested in Israel benefiting.”

With the Palestinian Authority unwilling to confront militants in its midst, Israeli military incursions have become more frequent and deadlier. Each cycle of violence deepens the political stagnation, analysts say.

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“Israel’s entry into Jenin will only be a Band-Aid,” said Michael Milstein, a former senior adviser to COGAT, the Israeli agency for Palestinian civil affairs.

The Israeli military claimed tactical victories in the wake of the Jenin raid, he said, but the public risks losing sight of the bigger picture: that the “no man’s land” of the West Bank looks increasingly similar to Gaza, and will further entangle Israel.

Israelis, Milstein said, do not realize that “there are real strategic issues that are not being answered by this divided coalition.”

On Sunday, the Israeli security cabinet voted to “prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority,” though it did not detail specific actions. A similar announcement made after regional talks in Aqaba, Jordan, in February also had no official follow-up.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who voted against the measure, said “there is no greater great absurdity than the fact that the body encouraging terrorism, paying salaries to terrorists, encouraging incitement to murder Jews and taking over territories in [the West Bank], would win a basket of goodies in the middle of a wave of terrorism.”

Maj. Gen. Talal Dweikat, the spokesman of the Palestinian Authority’s security services and a former governor of Jenin, laughed when asked about the Israeli cabinet’s vote to boost the authority, calling it a “manipulation and a lie.”

“Israel’s goal is to escape its commitments made during peace negotiations for a Palestinian state and blackmail the PA into giving concessions,” he said.

Last week, two Palestinian Authority officials were chased away from funerals for some of the 12 men killed in the Israeli raid. “Get out! Get out!” mourners shouted. Later that day, the authority’s security forces unleashed tear gas on a group of protesters who hurled stones at its security headquarters.

In Jenin, and across the West Bank, Palestinians say they are afraid for their safety. Last month, hundreds of armed settlers torched homes in Turmus Ayya, near Ramallah, following a similar rampage several months earlier.

“The people were looking at us and wondering why we did not go, though they know the reason — because we are not allowed to exchange fire with Israeli forces, which would result in losses on their side and on our side,” said a Palestinian security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation. He said he had a cousin in Turmus Ayya who begged him and his colleagues to come protect them.

He described his forces as “first responders,” but said they mostly dealt with breaking up family disputes or clamping down on demonstrations against the Palestinian Authority or in support of Hamas, the rival group that rules Gaza.

While Palestinian factions fight among themselves, and Israel threatens further military action, militant groups are growing stronger.

Mustafa Sheta, who manages a youth theater in the Jenin refugee camp, said young Palestinians who have never known peace negotiations or elections believe that violence will bring them “dignity.”

“This is a generation that has not achieved the minimum of realizing its dreams,” he said. “They are fighters who don’t talk about liberating Palestine. They don’t care about what Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or PA or Israel have to say. They just want resistance.”

Mohammed Najib in Ramallah and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.