At the height of the second intifada, in October 2002, I was one of those who called publicly upon the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to dissolve itself. At the time, it seemed to me that the PNA’s legitimacy was being undermined by two opposing forces: on the one hand, Hamas and the other radical movements, Islamic and non-Islamic; on the other, Israel.
The first made it impossible for the PNA to fulfill its obligations under Palestinian-Israeli agreements for preventing the use of force against Israel, whether through terrorism or resistance. The second, by building settlements and reoccupying Palestinian territories, made it impossible for the PNA to be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It was one of those ironies of history in which two arch enemies work in unison to achieve the same strategic goal: ending the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question.
My appeal at the time was meant to affirm that the Oslo process had in practice come to an end. Israel, the international community and the different Palestinian forces, including Hamas, would once again face the same strategic choices they had encountered before the Oslo process was launched.
Yet the PNA, having failed in substance, nevertheless remained resilient in form. Whether under the leadership of Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, the PNA lost its powers to manage both Palestinian lives and the Palestinian cause. The Israeli propensity for unilateral steps, including building the separation wall and the success of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, opened the door for a fundamental realignment in the Palestinian situation: the PNA, built upon the legitimacy of the Oslo process, is now led by a force that is in total opposition to this process. In fact, as Hamas became the leader of the Palestinian people, not only did the Oslo process come into question and not only was the two-state solution put to a test, but the entire peaceful approach to the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may have reached its end.
Fortunately, this is not the only development. The Palestinian people have continued to support a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Fatah and the majority of Palestinian political forces continue to believe in the two-state solution to the Palestinian historical calamity. As a result, a classic contradiction between national goals and sources of legitimacy has evolved in Palestinian society. The current climate of severe economic distress, the siege of the Palestinian polity, the isolation from the outside world, the dissemination of arms among all factions and highly weakened forces of law and order are all ingredients for chaos and possible civil war. The signs are already there in the latest clashes between Hamas and Fatah, the deployment of organized Hamas security groups and their forced withdrawal at the hands of mainly Fatah security forces.
The emergence of a possible Somalia-like situation in the Palestinian territories is of great concern to Egypt. The declaration by the Egyptian Interior Ministry about the training and financing of the recent terrorist operation in the Sinai resort town of Dhahab by Al-Qaeda groups in Gaza suggests there is more to come in the event of a total collapse of the PNA. This, in turn, would make the Palestinian territories a hotbed of regional terrorism, with links to Iraqi Al-Qaeda groups and with Iranian revolutionary meddling. Chaos in Palestine would threaten Egyptian national security with terrorism, drug trafficking and regional instability.
Of no less importance, the entire regional peace build-up that Egypt helped to create over the past three decades would become severely vulnerable. Confrontation with Israel would be part of Palestinian chaos; this was the case during the Civil War in Lebanon. Israeli use of force, based on past experience, would be excessive and would put Egyptian and Arab responsibilities to a test that Egypt has always tried to avoid. The possible extension of Palestinian chaos into Jordan would not only jeopardize the Jordanian-Israeli peace, but could extend the violence to the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese borders as well.
In reality, the collapse of the PNA would not only end any Palestinian political option for Israel but would also put an end to the role that the Palestinian Liberation Organization has played in Arab political and diplomatic circles. As the main PLO personalities would be involved in a bloody confrontation in the Palestinian territories, it would be very difficult for the remaining leadership in Tunis, without Arafat this time, to lead the Palestinian people.
Nature could take its course in "Palestine," with reason losing its way and the principal actors failing to realize that order, as bad as it might be, is much better than chaos.
Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.