This piece was prepared for a workshop on long-term trends in Palestine held in Amman, Jordan, in September 2014.

Ammar Dwaik
Ammar Dwaik is an assistant professor of public administration at the Birzeit School of Government, Birzeit University.

The sustainability of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has recently been seriously questioned. The political process between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel has run its course, with no political solutions on the horizon to the core issues of the conflict and with the continued expansion of Jewish settlements into the heart of the West Bank. The newly forged Palestinian coalition government, pursuant to a fragile reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, is facing tremendous challenges that may lead to its premature collapse, including the question of who should pay the salaries of 50,000 Hamas-appointed civil servants in Gaza. The electoral legitimacy of PNA institutions has eroded, and organizing a general election anytime soon seems impractical; this includes the presidency, which lacks an alternative succession mechanism or a strong obvious heir to the aging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli operations in the West Bank following the kidnapping of three Israeli settlers in June 2014 demonstrated the fragility of the PNA, and they showed that the anger of the Palestinian population can easily be directed at PNA security forces whose legitimacy has deteriorated and who are perceived by large segments of the Palestinians as being part of the Israeli security regime. In this context, a legitimate concern arises about the future of the public services currently provided by the PNA to more than 3.5 million residents in the West Bank and Gaza (WBG).

The main argument of this paper is that social and basic services would most likely survive even if the PNA collapses or decays. The question then should not be whether these services would persist, but how and through what mechanisms? However, Palestinians may deliberately disrupt public services as a last resort in the course of peaceful resistance.

Public Services Under the PNA

Providing services was envisaged as one of the core functions of the PNA in the Oslo Accords. The first Palestinian ministries were quickly established to facilitate service delivery: the Ministry of Social Affairs; the Ministry of Education; the Ministry of Higher Education, which later merged with the Ministry of Education; and the Ministry of Health. One of the reasons for the urgency was that the Israelis were swift in transferring responsibility over these spheres, with their existing personnel and facilities, to the PNA.1 That confirmed the Israeli vision of the Oslo Accords as the means of getting rid of direct responsibility for the Palestinian population.

The services that had been transferred from the Israelis were fragmented, of poor quality, and inadequate for the size of the population. The Israelis had not done much to upgrade what they had inherited from the Jordanians and Egyptians in 1967, and they failed to keep pace with the growing population in the WBG and the progress made in neighboring countries, including Egypt and Jordan.2

Other actors compensated for the inadequacy of the services provided by the Israeli Civil Administration, namely Palestinian NGOs that had played a significant role in service provision under direct Israeli occupation (1967–1994) and continued to do so under the PNA. By 1994, Palestinian NGOs operated 60 percent of healthcare facilities, in addition to managing all preschools and rehabilitation facilities.3

In general, the patterns and types of services that the PNA embarked on providing were, and still are, to a great extent continued from the Civil Administration; some PLO institutions, such as the Social Affairs Institution; and some Palestinian NGOs that were linked to the PLO, such as the Council of Higher Education, which coordinated the work of Palestinian universities in the WBG prior to the establishment of the PNA and was later incorporated into the Ministry of Higher Education. Some Islamic services were also adopted from the Jordanian government, which had a role in running mosques, supervising zakat committees,4 organizing pilgrimages to Mecca, and similar services.

Other basic needs like electricity, water, and garbage collection continued to be provided by municipalities and local councils, which also came under the jurisdiction of the PNA and had historically played an important role in providing these types of basic services.

To expand its jurisdiction over the maximum number of Palestinians and to create national structures and state institutions, the PNA upgraded, expanded, and increased accessibility to the services it inherited from the Israeli authorities, the PLO, Jordan, and NGOs. This required consolidating and unifying hitherto fragmented bodies under one ministry as well as assuming a regulatory role over other service providers.

Nevertheless, the PNA’s quest to consolidate its control over healthcare, education, and social support for the poor faced a number of limitations. First, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with PNA consent, continued to provide education, healthcare, social support, and other basic services to the refugees who comprised over 40 percent of WBG residents. Second, NGOs, which for different reasons have remained outside the structure of the PNA, continued to take on some share of service provision. With its limited resources and the large size of the sectors, coupled with a relatively high growth rate of the population, the PNA had no choice but to accept that other partners would help fulfill the state’s responsibilities, although it continued to be the main provider and the ultimate regulator.

Currently, the PNA is the main provider of primary and secondary education services in the WBG and the regulator of the education sector in general, which includes adopting and enforcing relevant educational standards and laws and providing the national curricula that are taught at all public, private, and UNRWA schools. Additionally, the PNA is the regulator of higher education provided by Palestinian universities and colleges, the majority of which are nonprofit.

The PNA’s contribution to preschool education is very meager, although it has recently developed its regulatory power in this sector. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ (PCBS) data for 2013–2014, out of the 2,784 schools in the WBG (2,094 in the West Bank and 690 in Gaza), the PNA runs 2,063 schools (74 percent), UNRWA runs 342 schools (12 percent), and private organizations run 379 schools (run by NGOs or for-profit companies). The data also indicated that as of 2012–2013, the PNA runs only 2 out of 1,323 kindergartens in the WBG (the rest are private kindergartens that are managed by NGOs or for-profit groups; UNRWA does not run any kindergartens).5

The government schools employ 70 percent of teachers, followed by UNRWA at 18 percent and the private sector at 12 percent. The numbers of male and female children are roughly equal, and the majority of public and UNRWA schools are gender segregated. In addition, the PNA provides 37 percent of the vocational training services, whereas the private sector and NGOs each account for 25 percent of such services.6

Equally, the PNA is the largest provider of healthcare services and the largest regulator of this sector in general. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health and PCBS data, the ministry accounts for 64 percent and 59 percent of the total number of primary healthcare centers and hospital beds, respectively; NGOs account for 27 percent and 29 percent, respectively; and UNRWA accounts for 8 percent and 1 percent, respectively. The private sector accounts for 9 percent of hospital beds.7 It should be noted that UNRWA’s low percentages in these areas are explained by the fact that it buys these services from NGOs and private providers.

In the agricultural sector, the PNA’s policy has been to take on a regulatory role. NGOs are thus the largest provider of agricultural services (such as land reclamation, training and awareness for farmers, and veterinary services), at about 53 percent of services, compared with the PNA’s 30 percent and the private sector’s 18 percent.8

Poverty alleviation and social security for the poor started to receive attention from the PNA and international donors after 2008, as part of the PNA’s policy to replace the Islamic charities and zakat committees close to Hamas. Through the Social Safety Net Reform Project, the World Bank supported the Palestinian National Authority in developing and managing an advanced cash assistance program that was also designed to be expanded during crises if needed.

With joint funding from the PNA and the European Union (EU), the Ministry of Social Affairs runs the National Cash Transfer Program, which provides limited cash assistance (between $100 and $150 a month) to around 100,000 families in the WBG that are considered to be in deep poverty. Additionally, the ministry operates a food aid program and various other services that are provided on a smaller scale (for example, operating a few shelters and institutional care for orphans, victims of family violence, and the elderly).9

The Ministry of Detainees and Ex­Detainees Affairs provides a cash transfer program for current and former Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons and their families, in addition to providing vocational training and a microcredit program for newly released prisoners.10 In general, social protection programs by the PNA are limited and target severe or deep poverty cases. These types of programs are also a continuation from before 1994.

The PNA has achieved considerable and impressive progress toward providing basic services or at least assuming the role of regulator. By 2005, the WBG achieved near universal coverage in all basic services, including electricity, water, sanitation, basic schooling, primary and secondary healthcare, and transportation.11 The PNA compares favorably to governments in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) on most health and education indicators. For example, enrollment in basic education (grades 1 through 10) is above 90 percent, compared to above 70 percent in MENA as a whole, and the infant mortality rate is 24 per 1,000 live births, compared to 32 in MENA as a whole.12 Illiteracy rates dropped from about 12 percent in 1997 (for people ten years and older) to 6 percent in 2004 for the same group, which makes the WBG the second best in MENA after Jordan.13

The political divide between the West Bank and Gaza that followed Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 did not have much effect on service provision. The Hamas government in Gaza and the PNA reached unwritten understandings to keep the service sectors running. To prevent any humanitarian crisis that it might have been blamed for and as a political move to assert its responsibility over Gaza, the PNA in the West Bank continued to pay salaries and provide equipment and needed disposables to the hospitals and schools in Gaza. Ministry of Social Affairs programs cover both the West Bank and Gaza, with the share in Gaza disproportionately higher because the poverty rates are higher there.

The public services provided by the PNA are primarily financed through the PNA annual budget and make up around 40 percent of total public spending (the 2014 PNA budget is estimated to be around $4.2 billion). The PNA’s revenues come from three main sources that are roughly equally distributed: taxes and fees collected directly by the PNA; tariffs and taxes collected by Israel on behalf of and transferred to the PNA; and direct foreign aid to the PNA budget. The first two sources of revenues are projected to generate around $2.7 billion while the PNA expects to receive $1.6 billion in foreign aid.

UNRWA’s budget is financed by the EU, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the United States, among others. Palestinian NGOs are heavily dependent on foreign funding, both Western and non-Western, which accounts for 78 percent of their revenues.14

Resilience of Public Services

Since the 1948 Nakba (the displacement of Palestinians after Israeli independence), there has been impressive resilience in services provision. It has survived the succeeding occupations, two intifadas, the political divide between the West Bank and Gaza, and the blockade on Gaza that began in 2007. Healthcare, education, and other basic services continued during the first intifada in 1987–1993 and the collapse of public order, and they carried on during the second intifada in 2000–2005 and the near collapse of the PNA. The standard high school exam (tawjihi) has been held since 1967 without disruption. In fact, the 1967 Six-Day War took place during the exam period, yet the school year was not canceled.

The main reason for this resilience in public services is that key actors (Israelis, Palestinians, and international and regional players) have sought a certain level of services for WBG residents for different rationales. The last thing Israel wants to see is a humanitarian crisis it would be blamed for as the responsible power in the West Bank and Gaza under international law. Additionally, Israel provided services to the Palestinians during the 1967–1994 occupation and allowed other actors to do so as a means for controlling the population and precluding a radicalizing factor in the absence or disruption of social services.

For the Palestinians, service provision served two purposes before the establishment of the PNA: the continuation of services maintaining acceptable living conditions was considered a precondition for supporting the steadfastness (somod) of the population under occupation; and service provision was used by PLO factions as a way to mobilize and widen their political and social bases.

During the first intifada, the Palestinian leadership decided to use civil disobedience as one of the tools in the struggle against the Israeli occupation. This disobedience did not entail the disruption of public or basic services. It meant asking Palestinians to stop paying taxes to the Israeli authorities and instructing certain types of Palestinian employees who worked for the Israeli Civil Administration to resign from their jobs, namely those in the police and other public order agencies. In fact, the Palestinian leadership, through what were known as popular committees, worked hard to make sure public education continued under the severe conditions of the intifada.

International and regional forces supported UNRWA and other service providers for political and humanitarian reasons: in order to keep an acceptable level of stability and because supporting the service sector seemed to be one of the few things they could do for the Palestinians.

Public Service in the Absence of the PNA

The PNA is the largest service provider in the WBG. What would happen to this wide array of public services if the PNA collapses or decays?

The best predictor of the future is past behavior. In general, services would most likely persist unless the Palestinians consciously decided to use the disruption of public services as a peaceful tool of resistance. Understanding the position of each actor is necessary to explain this conclusion and to try to make predictions about the mechanisms and institutional arrangements through which services would be provided and/or regulated.

The Israelis would do what would be needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis that they eventually would be blamed for and that may have security ramifications for them, but at the same time they would avoid going back to pre-1994 arrangements when Israel had a direct role in service provision through the Civil Administration.15

The Palestinian leadership might, at some point, decide to dissolve the PNA to put pressure on Israel and the international community. Regardless of the likelihood of this scenario, it would not lead to a long-term disruption in basic services but would shift the responsibility of managing and financing those services to other bodies and institutions. Under any scenario, the Palestinian leadership would not oppose any arrangements that would be necessary to continue service provision to the population, as long as these arrangements did not signify an alternative to PLO/PNA (or Hamas in Gaza) representation of the Palestinians.

Arab and international donors would continue to provide their assistance to the Palestinians as they have done for the last sixty-five years. However, donors, Western ones in particular, need an acceptable mechanism to channel funding. When international donors boycotted the Hamas government in 2006–2007, they refused to channel any money through the Ministry of Finance under Hamas. The Middle East Quartet (grouping together the EU, Russia, the UN, and the United States) adopted a mechanism to directly pay the salaries of doctors, school teachers, and other PNA employees who were involved in delivery of essential services. This shows how donors, with the consent of the PNA, can come up with solutions that ensure the running of public services.

UNRWA would continue with its mandate and might take on more services or include segments of the population other than just refugees upon pressure from the international community.

The collapse or the dissolution of the PNA primarily refers to political institutions and public order, not necessarily to the bureaucratic institutions that are involved in services delivery. The sizable bureaucratic apparatus of the PNA, which has accumulated experience and the capacity to deliver services on a national scale, would most likely continue to provide these services especially in the fields of education, healthcare, and social assistance, mainly because there is no alternative body or set of bodies that could assume these responsibilities. However, the bureaucratic apparatus would need a political umbrella in addition to the financial resources to pay the salaries of employees and other costs. In this context, different scenarios can be predicted.

One possible scenario is that Jordan, with the blessing of the Palestinian leadership and the consent of Israel, could play a role in providing an institutional framework that would allow international donors to continue channeling their funding. This scenario is supported by the fact that Jordan used to help supervise certain public institutions and provided a regulatory framework for some services until it disengaged from the West Bank in 1988.16 However, Jordan for domestic reasons would resist any entanglement on the Palestinian issue and thus would not easily accept a role in service delivery to the Palestinians, unless doing so would prevent further involvement in Palestinian politics (for example, to prevent a total collapse in Palestinian livelihoods and possible mass migration).

Another scenario is the establishment of an international mechanism that would involve international donors, relevant UN agencies, remnants of the PNA, or an expanded UNRWA mandate to take on additional services and segments of the population.

A third scenario is the expansion of the role of NGOs and the transformation of some of the existing PNA institutions into nongovernmental or quasi-governmental entities, particularly those institutions that used to be such before the establishment of the PNA, like the Council of Higher Education and the Medical Council. This scenario may also involve the expansion of the role of local councils or municipalities to perform functions that are currently provided by the central government.

The return of the Israeli Civil Administration is highly unlikely. However, Israel might step in again to supervise certain fields of services that have a special interest to the Israelis because of the security ramifications, or because of the impact on Israeli settlements or the demographic composition of the WBG. This could include, for example, the civil registry (such as issuing ID cards or birth certificates), infrastructure, zoning, or similar services in which the Civil Administration already has a role. In the case of a sudden collapse of the PNA, particularly if it was due to a direct Israeli military intervention, the Civil Administration could additionally take over the entire service sector for a short time until an alternative mechanism was developed. Under this scenario, the Civil Administration would most likely keep parts of the bureaucratic apparatus involved in direct service delivery and would pay salaries.

A final scenario is an amalgamation of all of the above, whereby supervision over the service sectors would be distributed between different actors.

With the decay of the PNA, collection of domestic revenues would probably decrease and would therefore increase Palestinians’ reliance on foreign aid from Arab and other countries. However, tariffs and sales tax collected by Israel should continue to be collected and could be used to finance public services for the Palestinians under any scenario.

None of the above scenarios precludes the possibility that the Palestinian leadership could take an unprecedented step and deliberately stop providing public services in order to pressure Israel and the international community to find a solution to the conflict according to Palestinian terms. Under this scenario, the Palestinian leadership might decide to abandon its responsibilities over service delivery and oppose any alternative international arrangements in order to pressure Israel to take over these services as long as there is no acceptable solution to the conflict. Because Palestinians have never resorted to the disruption of public and basic services in their struggle against the Israeli occupation, such a move would be an extreme step or a last resort.

Conclusion

Public services in the West Bank and Gaza have shown an outstanding level of resilience that is likely to continue even if security, political, or economic situations deteriorate, including a possible collapse of the PNA. It is obvious that there is an implied understanding among all actors to keep public and basic services out of the political and military conflict. Different institutional arrangements can be reached without bringing back direct Israeli involvement or creating a political alternative to the representation of the PLO. However, it is still possible that Palestinians may decide to use the disruption of public and basic services as an extreme, nonviolent tool of resistance.

Ammar Dwaik is an assistant professor of public administration at the Birzeit School of Government, Birzeit University.

Notes

1 Michel Rocard, Henry Siegman, Yezid Sayigh, and Khalil Shikaki, Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions, (New York: The Council on Foreign Relations, 1999).

2 Ibid.

3 Mustafa Barghouthi, “The Palestinian NGOs and the Challenges Ahead,” Arab Thought Forum, published February 11, 2006, http://www.multaqa.org/etemplate.php?id=333.

4 Zakat, also known as zakah, refers to almsgiving, a religious obligation to give money to the poor or needy.

5 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, “Annual Statistics,” accessed February 17, 2015,  http://www.pcbs.gov.ps/site/lang__en/708/default.aspx.

6 Ibid.

7 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Health, National Health Accounts 2000-2008: Main Findings, (Ramallah: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Health, 2011).

8 World Bank, The Role and Performance of Palestinian NGOs In Health, Education and Agriculture, (Ramallah: World Bank Bisan Center for Research and Development, 2006).

9 Interview with deputy minister of social affairs, February 2014.

<10 Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian Reform and Development Plan, 2008-2010, (Ramallah: Palestinian National Authority, 2008). The PNA pays a monthly salary to all Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails, which exposes it to frequent criticism from Israeli media and some Israeli officials for using U.S. money to pay “salaries to terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons.” Herb Keinon, “US Paying Salaries for Jailed Palestinian Terrorists,” Jerusalem Post, July 26, 2011. http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/US-paying-salaries-for-jailed-Palestinian-terrorists

11 Åge A. Tiltnes, Jon Pedersen, Silje Sønsterudbråten, and Jing Liu, Palestinian Opinions about Public Services: Synthesis of Results of Fafo’s Opinion Polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 2005–2011, (Oslo: Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, 2011).

12 World Bank, A Palestinian State in Two Years: Institutions for Economic Revival, (World Bank, 2009).

13 Ghadeer Fannoun, “The Development and State of the Art of Adult Learning and Education (ALE): National Report of Palestine,” (Ramallah: Ministry of Education and Higher Education, 2008).

14 Joseph DeVoir and Alaa Tartir, “Tracking External Donor Funding to Palestinian Non Governmental Organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip 1999–2008,” (Jerusalem and Ramallah: Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute; Ramallah: NGO Development Center, 2009).

15 The Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria still exists and exerts authority over the Palestinians living in Area C in matters relating to zoning, construction, and infrastructure. “Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories,” Israel Defense Forces, last accessed November 13, 2014, http://www.cogat.idf.il/894-en/Matpash.aspx.

16 John Kifner, “Hussein Surrenders Claims on West Bank to the P.L.O.; U.S. Peace Plan in Jeopardy; Internal Tensions,” New York Times, August 1, 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/01/world/hussein-surrenders-claims-west-bank-plo-us-peace-plan-jeopardy-internal-tensions.html