The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the self-rule government of the Palestinians, was first elected on Jan. 20, 1996. Palestinians over the age of 18 who were not citizens of Israel residing in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem were eligible to vote. The elections were held under terms of an accord signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Sept. 28, 1995. PLO chief Yasir Arafat won the presidency with 87.1% of the vote. Members of his Fatah wing of the PLO captured about 75% of the seats in the new 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council. The new government took office on Feb. 11, 1996. In March 2003 the PNA officially approved Arafat's appointment of the first-ever Palestinian prime minister. The prime minister would head the cabinet and have responsibility for the day-to-day running of the government.
The 1996 elections had been boycotted by extremists opposed to peace with Israel. Nevertheless, nearly 80% of registered voters had participated. The PNA's responsibilities were spelled out in a series of accords on Palestinian self-rule signed by Israel and the PLO since 1993. PNA ministries controlled the Palestinian school system, banks, a television station, courts, taxation, and the postal service. They also performed various services, such as issuing passports and automobile license plates. The PNA commanded a Palestinian police force as well; that authority was charged with keeping the peace in the parts of the formerly Israeli-occupied territories that gradually came under Palestinian self-rule. The PNA was originally scheduled to govern the Gaza Strip and the parts of the West Bank given self-rule until the end of May 1999, the initial tentative date for the signing of a final peace treaty.
The October 1998 U.S.-brokered Wye River accord had called for the turnover of additional West Bank land that would give the PNA control of 40% of the West Bank. The withdrawals stalled because of what Israel said was the PNA's failure to crack down on individuals and groups advocating violence. They resumed under new Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who defeated hard-line incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu in May 17, 1999, elections. On Sept. 4, 1999, Israel agreed to turn over another 11% of the West Bank to the PNA within five months. It was also to release 350 Palestinian prisoners and guarantee safe passage for Palestinians between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In exchange, the PNA pledged to implement various security measures. On September 10, Israel transferred an additional 7% of the West Bank to the PNA. A second land transfer, originally scheduled for November, took place in early January 2000. The third land transfer was postponed until March. It gave the PNA control of nearly 43% of the West Bank and about 60% of its Arab population. But the Feb. 13, 2000, deadline for reaching a framework for final talks was not met.
Discontent with the peace process itself (especially the issue of who would control Jerusalem) was the chief cause of a violent uprising by Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel that began on Sept. 28, 2000. Many observers believed that the violence was also fueled by frustration with the authoritarianism, corruption, and inefficiency of the PNA and its inability to reach a settlement acceptable to its constituency. Some critics charged that the PNA actually encouraged the unrest in an effort to wring further concessions from the Israelis. In any case, it seemed powerless to halt the bloodshed. The PNA's authority was further weakened by a severe economic downturn that took place when Israel tried to end the violence by imposing strict limits on the movement of Palestinian workers and goods.
In February 2001, as unrest and Israel's economic blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued, Israel's new prime minister, Likud leader Ariel Sharon, suspended peace talks until the violence ended. The PNA became increasingly marginalized as the economic hardships, rising death toll, and Israeli military tactics caused many Palestinians to embrace the radical terrorist tactics of extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In October 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the PNA government demanded that Palestinian gunmen stop attacking Israel. It argued that they were damaging Palestinian interests by violating the cease-fire announced in late September. But attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets soon escalated, along with retaliatory Israeli military strikes. The latter included the March 2002 Israeli destruction of the PNA headquarters in Gaza and the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israel reoccupied many Palestinian areas. It also appeared to be particularly targeting the PNA as the instrument of Palestinian nationalism. This strategy backfired. Anti-Israeli sentiments both among the Palestinians and throughout the Arab world were inflamed by the hardships that Israeli military tactics created for the Palestinian population.
Arafat was finally released from confinement at his largely destroyed headquarters in Ramallah in May 2002. By this time the PNA was weaker than ever before. International donors pledged aid to rebuild Palestinian institutions and to provide emergency humanitarian relief. They hoped that, should a new cease-fire accord be reached, there would be a government to enforce it.
In late May 2002, Arafat yielded to pressures for reform and signed the Palestinian Basic Law. This bill had been passed by the legislature five years earlier. It was essentially a constitution for an as-yet-nonexistent Palestinian state. The charter pledged to create the most democratic Arab government in the Middle East. It also defined Arafat's powers as chief executive. In July, under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to release some of the estimated $430 million in back taxes owed to the PNA. The Sharon government had been holding these monies because it asserted that the PNA had been using them to fund terrorist activities. Israel also tentatively agreed to permit a few thousand of the estimated 125,000 Palestinians who had once worked in Israel to return to their jobs.
In March 2003 the Palestinian legislature approved Arafat's selection of his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, as the first prime minister of the PNA. On April 30 the PNA and Israel were presented with a new peace plan, known as the "road map." It had been drawn up by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. On July 9 the United States announced that it would give the PNA $20 million in direct humanitarian aid for the rebuilding of infrastructure damaged and destroyed during the second intifada. This was the first time that the United States had ever given money directly to the PNA. It was seen as an effort to strengthen Abbas's position.
In the wake of an Aug. 19, 2003, suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus for which Hamas and Islamic Jihad both claimed responsibility, Israel broke off all contacts with the PNA. Abbas ordered his security forces to arrest those behind the attack. He resigned on September 6, though, frustrated with his inability to wrest control of the security forces from Arafat. Arafat appointed legislative speaker Ahmed Qureia as Abbas's successor. Qureia had even less success than his predecessor in gaining control of the PNA security forces, and the crackdown on extremist groups ended.
In September 2004 a drive was launched to register voters for three-stage, yearlong elections for municipal councils (the first since 1976) that were to begin in December 2004. This plan was postponed due to Arafat's death on Nov. 11, 2004. It did, however, lead to a voter-registration campaign under which 71% of eligible Palestinian citizens had joined the rolls by early December 2004. It also paved the way for a new presidential election to replace Arafat as head of the PNA. Most PNA officials believed such a poll was the best way to provide legitimacy to a new president. Elections were long overdue, as the terms of Arafat and the legislature had expired in 1999.
In the Jan. 9, 2005, presidential election, Abbas captured 62.3% of the vote to 19.8% for his nearest challenger, prodemocracy activist Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. As president, Abbas pledged to reform the PNA. He urged a resumption of talks based on the "road map" peace plan. New Palestinian legislative elections—the first since 1996—were tentatively scheduled for July 17, 2005, but were later postponed by Abbas until January 2006. The various militant Palestinian faction leaders subsequently agreed to extend their informal truce with Israel. Tensions nevertheless remained high even after the historic unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements was completed on Sept. 12, 2005. The PNA had ambitious plans for redeveloping the abandoned Israeli settlements. But it was unable to maintain the security needed to attract foreign investment and create jobs for the huge number of unemployed young Palestinians that formed a pool of recruits for armed gangs and militant groups. The future grew even murkier when Sharon, who had abandoned Likud to form a new centrist party (Kadima) to contest early Israeli elections scheduled for Mar. 28, 2006, suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 4, 2006.
Abbas had sought to co-opt Palestinian extremists by including them in the government. As a result, Hamas had drawn a significant share of the vote in the 2005 municipal elections, which had been boycotted by Islamic Jihad. Most observers had expected Fatah to win the Jan. 25, 2006, legislative elections by a narrow majority. But voters had grown disgusted with Fatah's incompetence and corruption. Hamas scored a sweeping victory, garnering 76 of 132 seats in an expanded legislature. Fatah refused an invitation to join the new government, although Abbas remained president. The new Hamas-dominated PNA government indicated that it would be willing to extend the nearly yearlong informal truce with Israel. It pointedly refused, however, to acknowledge Israel's right to exist.
Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader in Gaza, was chosen as the PNA's new prime minister. The new Hamas cabinet was sworn in on Mar. 29, 2006. Due to Israeli travel restrictions, many Palestinian legislators could participate in parliamentary sessions only via video link. Most international donors withheld aid for the PNA because of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel. Israel also stopped collecting an estimated $50 million a month in customs revenues on the PNA's behalf. This created a fiscal crisis for the PNA, which was the major source of jobs for Palestinians. It was unable to pay its employees or carry out its plans to improve life for its citizens. Foreign donors searched for a way to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people while isolating the Hamas-led government they had elected.
In late May 2006, Abbas tried to force the hand of Hamas concerning recognition of Israel by calling for a Palestinian referendum on a two-state solution. Meanwhile, violence erupted between the security forces supporting Hamas and Fatah. On June 12, following Hamas attacks on their own facilities, Fatah gunmen attacked the parliament building and offices of the Hamas prime minister in Gaza. Later that month, as Abbas and the Hamas government appeared to be reaching a compromise, the Hamas military wing was among three groups claiming responsibility for the kidnapping of an Israeli solder. Israel swiftly retaliated. It bombed Gaza's power plant and the prime minister's office, closed the Gaza border crossing, and imprisoned many members of the Hamas government. The conflict escalated, with devastating economic consequences for the Palestinian people and their government. Nevertheless, it was not the focus of world media attention. Instead, the international community focused on the even more destructive conflict in Lebanon that began in July. The Israeli attacks on Gaza, which had killed 320 Palestinians by early November, continued after Israel withdrew its last forces from Lebanon on Oct. 1, 2006. In an effort to end both the attacks and the international sanctions, Abbas tried to forge a new deal to create a government of national unity that would include both Hamas and Fatah.
A new government of national unity was sworn in on Mar. 17, 2007, but the differences between Gaza, a Hamas stronghold, and the more moderate West Bank had intensified. The unity government collapsed in June when Hamas militias seized control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah security forces then took control of government buildings in the West Bank. From there, Abbas dismissed the Hamas prime minister and outlawed the Hamas militias. A new Fatah-controlled cabinet, which Hamas declared illegal, was sworn in on June 17. It was headed by respected economist Salam Fayyad. Technically, Hamas still held a majority in the PNA legislature. In fact, it was unable to muster the votes to rule Abbas's actions illegal because 41 of the 74 Hamas legislators had been detained by Israel, giving Fatah (with 42 seats) a de facto majority. Therefore, Hamas chose to boycott the legislature, leaving it unable to assemble a quorum. This allowed Abbas to extend his emergency cabinet's term indefinitely, which he did on July 11. He said he might call new legislative elections to resolve the legal controversy. Meanwhile, he continued to rule by decree.
Meanwhile, Western aid and Israeli remittances to the new West Bank government resumed. This enabled the PNA to begin paying more than 150,000 members of the civil service and security forces for the first time in 17 months. The sanctions on the Gaza Strip remained in place, however, because Hamas still refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel. The estimated 20,000 public-sector employees loyal to Hamas did not receive paychecks. The growing West Bank/Gaza Strip divide was likely to make the forging of a unified Palestinian nation even more difficult. Nevertheless, new regional and international peace initiatives were launched.
Frisch, Hillel, Countdown to Statehood: Palestinian State Formation in the West Bank and Gaza (1998).
Robinson, Glenn E., Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution (1997).
Rubin, Barry M., The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building (1999).