Self-Rule Without Sovereignty

Political scientist Diana B. Greenwald on the promises and pitfalls of Palestinian local governance in the shadow of Israeli occupation.

Dana El Kurd
June 17, 2024

Palestinians vote in municipal elections near the West Bank city of Hebron, September 29th, 2005.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

In the months since Israel began its annihilatory assault on Gaza, there has been extensive discussion in global policy circles about Palestinian governance on the elusive “day after.” For its part, the Israeli government has refused to entertain the idea of Palestinian self-government or statehood, with members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet instead pledging their full support for ethnic cleansing and re-settlement of the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, the Biden administration, until recently, has supported bringing the Palestinian Authority (PA) back into Gaza, even as PA officials warn that they cannot arrive “on the back of an Israeli tank.” The idea of multinational or Arab peacekeeping forces administering Gaza has also been floated, with almost no input from Palestinians. Meanwhile, Palestinians have been debating the role Hamas should play in future governance, with some insisting that Hamas cannot be sidestepped in any post-war coalition, others holding that Hamas should play no role, and yet others arguing that it is time to move beyond the PA–Hamas paradigm entirely, possibly reviving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and creating space for more diverse Palestinian political perspectives.

Political scientist Diana B. Greenwald’s new book, Mayors in the Middle: Indirect Rule and Local Government in Occupied Palestine, historicizes this debate, showing how Palestinian governance, even at the local level, has long been connected to the context of the occupation and the question of Palestinian national liberation. Focusing largely on the West Bank in the period immediately following the Second Intifada—a rare time of electoral competition in Palestinian towns and cities—Greenwald documents how Palestinian local leaders navigated Israel’s regime of territorial domination, alternately working amidst, upholding, or resisting it. I spoke to Greenwald about Palestinian local politics, the promises and limitations of self-rule under occupation, and thinking about the future of Palestinian governance amidst Israel’s genocidal war on the Gaza Strip. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dana El Kurd: Could you tell us what Mayors in the Middle covers?

Diana Greenwald: The book is trying to address how Palestinians govern themselves at the local level, in a context of occupation, and in the absence of sovereignty. It is focused on the West Bank, where I did field-based research as well as interviews with mayors, municipal council members, and municipal staff past and present.

Based on this research, as well as data on the local-level infrastructure of the occupation, I argue that Palestinian local governance is heavily shaped by the regime of indirect rule that Israel has used since at least the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, when it began ruling through, and in collaboration with, the central executive branch of the PA and its coercive apparatus. This became a central part of the Israeli strategy of maintaining control over the West Bank, and advancing settler colonization there.

Many of the Palestinian mayors and local-level politicians I spoke to talked about how complicated it was for them to try to serve their communities in this context. Even the day-to-day tasks of local governance—such as building roads, providing water services or sewage treatment, and maintaining public spaces—are often derailed or stymied by Israeli military rule.

DEK: You refer to this arrangement in the West Bank as “indirect rule.” Can you say more about what this term means?

DG: I’m not the first to use the language of “indirect rule” to describe the Israel–PA relationship in the West Bank; numerous other scholars have done so, and there are echoes of this in your own work on the relationship between international donors and the PA. Indirect rule is a strategy used by states or by colonial powers to outsource or delegate some kind of governance to an indigenous intermediary in settings where they either cannot, or do not want to, govern that population themselves. And even though indirect rule is sometimes described as a purely institutional arrangement, it is often used to sustain a regime of ethnic and racial domination over an indigenous group—what the scholar Mahmood Mamdani calls “decentralized despotism.”

Indirect rule has existed in many contexts: the early colonization of North America, during British rule in South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, and most notably, during apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, which Mamdani argues is the “perfected” form of indirect rule. The bantustans were territories that were set up to forcibly displace and, to use Mamdani’s word, “containerize” the Black South African population under the guise of self-governance.

DEK: Where does Palestine fit into this schema?

DG: Indirect rule in the Palestinian case most closely resembles apartheid South Africa because the indigenous intermediaries in both cases—whether the executive branch of the PA or the bantustan leaders—are mainly focused on coercion and the use of force, as opposed to cases like British colonial India where the intermediaries’ emphasis is more on taxation and resource extraction.

In popular commentary, you often see a reference to the PA as a whole being a “collaborator” or subcontractor of the Israeli occupation. But it is worth being specific. The PA is a sprawling, massive institutional apparatus in the West Bank which employs thousands of people—engineers, doctors, teachers, electricians—not all of whom are really agents of Israel. Ultimately, it is the police and security forces operating under the central executive branch of the PA that monitor the West Bank’s Palestinian population and repress the opponents of the occupation.

DEK: How does this context of indirect rule affect local Palestinian politics?

DG: Palestinians’ local-level political affiliations are complex and diverse, but broadly speaking, one key division is between Palestinians affiliated with Fatah—the party that controls the PA and is a key intermediary within Israel’s regime—and those who are not. This latter category includes those affiliated with opponents of the Oslo regime, such as Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other smaller parties, as well as the broad swath of Palestinians who are independent or unaffiliated.

In the period I focused on in the book, I found that the reputations of municipal leaders were shaped by whether they identified with Fatah, aligned with an opposition faction, or positioned themselves as independent, and this in turn affected approaches to governance. Fatah-affiliated mayors tended to govern in a way that attempted to compensate for their party’s reputational disadvantage—by, for example, avoiding tax and fee collection, and running deficits in order to spend on public services. On the other hand, municipalities led by Fatah’s opponents, including Hamas and others, drew on their relative reputational advantage to overcome resource constraints. This meant, for example, mobilizing voluntary contributions of money, labor, or in-kind resources from constituents to build roads, schools, and so forth. And since much of my book focuses on a period where there was actual competition in elections for mayors and municipal councils, these differences were playing out in real time.

DEK: Can you say more about the broader political context that is operative in this period?

DG: The local leaders I focus on were elected in 2004 and 2005, immediately prior to the “earthquake” January 2006 elections where Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature. At that point, international donors, led by the United States, froze aid to the PA, and refused to accept the legitimacy of a Hamas-led government (which would not formally recognize Israel, or bind itself to existing diplomatic agreements between Israel and the Fatah-led PLO). This enabled Fatah, and Mahmoud Abbas in particular, to cling to power in the West Bank while Hamas seized political power in Gaza, creating a split in governance that persists to this day. However, on the local level in the West Bank, mayors affiliated with regime opponents still governed some places until 2012, when Fatah-approved officials regained control of most municipalities and mayoral offices through uncompetitive elections and, in some cases, by forcing predecessors to leave their seats. By the time I was there for research between 2014 and 2019, there had already been a hollowing out of any real political competition for local office.

DEK: In popular discourse amongst Palestinians, there is sometimes an argument that even the kind of competitive politics that existed between 2005 and 2012 was in fact a way to polarize and distract. What do you make of this understanding? Are these mayors elected in this period indeed a meaningful opposition, whether to the PA or to the occupation?

DG: My book focuses on the impact of the Israeli occupation on local politics in the West Bank. But obviously, we need to think about the reverse as well: Are there any larger possibilities that emerge from local or municipal governance for the prospect of Palestinian liberation? I want to be modest about those claims. Mayors in the West Bank are not in a position to uproot settler colonialism, or to massively transform the project for Palestinian liberation. But what they can do is forge local, intimate connections with their constituents that some scholars would call social capital, trust, or simply reputations for governance. If the mayors are affiliated with a specific political faction or movement, these connections can then translate into movement-building for that party or faction.

Moreover, given the structural injustice under which Palestinians are living, local governance and the provision of physical and material infrastructure in these communities can itself be a form of combating erasure. And this is work that many municipal councils have historically done, and continue to do, regardless of party affiliations. You can see this right now in the Gaza Strip, where some local governments continue to operate even today, in the midst of a genocidal war. For example, the municipality of Gaza City is still active, as of June 2024. They’re still posting on social media about delivering desalinated water to displaced communities, trying to repair water lines and municipal buildings that have been destroyed, and so forth. This is not to feed into a romanticized narrative of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness), but to recognize that there is something very material and very physical about local governance, which is grounded not only in communities and people, but also in the land.

DEK: What do you think your scholarship about local democracy as well as indirect rule in the West Bank can teach us about the future of Palestinian governance, specifically in Gaza where the level of devastation is so extreme and yet “day after” plans are constantly being discussed?

DG: It does feel fruitless to devote attention to some kind of “day after” conversation right now when the basic infrastructures needed to sustain life in Gaza—the entire health care system and hospital network, the water distribution network, the schools, and so on—are gone. All of it will need to be rebuilt, and ideally, this should happen in a way that includes Israeli reparations for this genocidal war, as well as accountability through international law for all of the crimes Israel has committed against Palestinians.

But a lot of the process of rebuilding is going to be connected to who ultimately governs Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. And on that front, there are many things that lead us to predict that Israel, for its part, will attempt to maintain complete domination over both the West Bank and Gaza without any central intermediary. Prior to October 7th, there were already highly developed plans by Israeli minister Bezalel Smotrich and his friends to essentially stamp the PA out of existence and reimpose direct Israeli military rule over the West Bank, in conjunction with an overt plan of ethnic cleansing and expulsion. Under this plan, the Palestinians who remained were going to be atomized into these local communities that would be under the direct and repressive arm of the Israeli military with no intermediary in between. And there was this illusion that somehow this would be part of this larger plan of de-nationalizing Palestinians and subduing their liberation struggle, because they would be so fragmented and repressed and—if Smotrich had his way—ultimately defeated.

Following the genocidal war on Gaza, there are more members of the Israeli government openly advocating for resettlement of Gaza. Some have suggested the idea that, in this case, Palestinians can be governed by compliant tribal or local leaders who are willing to work with and under the Israeli military. But this vision of localizing Palestinian politics in order to cement Israeli domination in Gaza is not only offensive to the cause of Palestinian rights, it is a completely ahistorical and foolhardy approach. It ignores what happened when Palestinians lived under unmediated direct Israeli rule for the first 25 years of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In that case, local leaders actually used their position to try and advance the national liberation project. So if things go this route, we might no longer see Palestinian officials emphasizing their apolitical role in service provision, and instead have more figures like those we saw in the late 1970s and ’80s: Bassam al-Shaka’a in Nablus, Karim Khalaf in Ramallah, Ibrahim Tawil in al-Bireh. These guys became emblems of the nationalist project, organizing and leading different forms of resistance and mobilization against the occupation, such as rallies against the Camp David Accords, local economic boycotts, and the like. I don’t know if the future will look the same as those years, but what I do know is that the strategy to denationalize Palestinians will likely fail just like it did in the past.

DEK: Exactly. I don’t know when it’s going to sink in for everybody in the American establishment and the Israeli government that you cannot defuse a national liberation movement in this way. You will not get to any kind of non-violent stasis without a political path forward that addresses the larger national struggle—with Palestinian buy-in and involvement.

DG: This is why it is worrying that a lot of this “day after” conversation is completely excluding Palestinians. I worry that we’re very far away from a political path whereby Palestinians are going to have their rightful opportunity to govern themselves.

DEK: Right. And during a period of lesser kinetic violence, we may have been able to have a discussion about how short- or medium-term governance can build some sort of political pathway forward. But now, given the unprecedented scale of what’s been done to Gaza, Palestinians are—for very good reason—absolutely wary of any short- or medium-term governance solutions. The international community, and particularly the United States, seems to want a return to some sort of status quo, maybe slightly shifted to pay lip service to Palestinian grievances. But anything short of a full political vision to move forward will not have Palestinian buy-in. On top of that, the Israelis have clearly demonstrated they will never accept the premise of that discussion, or start structurally. In my mind, that leaves the international community, which needs to impose that larger discussion. Otherwise, as you are suggesting, we just have injustice, and if it’s not clear already, injustice is unsustainable.

Dana El Kurd is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond. She is the author of the book Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2020). El Kurd is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute.