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Terrorism Havens: Palestinian Authority

Updated: December 2005

What is the Palestinian Authority (PA)?

The PA is an autonomous government that was established by a series of early 1990s Israeli-Palestinian peace pacts to rule over most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and probably become the basis for a full-blown Palestinian state later in the peace process. The PA lacks many powers associated with a state—such as complete control of its territory—but is responsible for providing such varied government services as education, criminal justice, health care, and trash collection for some three million Palestinians. It rules virtually all of poverty-stricken Gaza and shares or has total control of about 40 percent of the West Bank; the rest of the West Bank, including more than one hundred Israeli settlements, is under Israeli control. In the past, the PA has been criticized by human rights groups for authoritarian practices.

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Is the Palestinian Authority a haven for terrorism?

Yes. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—all formally classified as terrorist groups by the U.S. government—operate from the Palestinian-ruled territories governed by Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yasir Arafat as leader of the Fatah party. The al-Aqsa Brigades are closely tied to the al-Fatah faction, but Israelis and Palestinians differ bitterly over what role Arafat and his regime played in terrorism, and many Palestinians say that violent resistance to Israeli occupation and settlement-building is legitimate.

Israel says it has documents proving that Arafat—who formerly headed the PA, an autonomous government created after Israel partly pulled out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in return for Palestinian promises to renounce violence—sponsors terrorism. PA leaders insisted Arafat was doing all he could to fight terrorism, but they also say that Israel must restart political talks before a cease-fire can take hold and warn that Israeli attacks have destroyed the very forces Arafat could have used to crack down on terrorism.

Since Arafat’s death in 2004, Abbas, or Abu Mazen, has made an effort to restart peace negotiations with Israel. While Palestinian infrastructure—especially the security force—remain corrupt and unable to handle terrorism in the region, Abu Mazen has expressed a desire to work with militant leaders to reach a peaceful solution. He has condemned the armed Palestinian uprisings and has even attempted to end Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

Does the Bush administration back Abbas?

Yes, but in a lukewarm fashion, experts say. Abbas met with President Bush at the White House in October 2005, after which Bush urged Israel to let Hamas participate in future parliamentary elections. In return, Abbas promised that disarmament would take place after elections. Abbas has been trying to establish PA control over armed militants by co-opting them into the Palestinian Security Services, which he is also trying to reform.

Have Israeli reprisals targeted the PA?

Yes. After suffering a devastating wave of Palestinian terrorism during the Palestinian intifada (uprising) that began in September 2000, Israel struck Arafat’s police forces, destroyed his helicopters, and crossed into PA territory. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also pinned Arafat down in his Ramallah headquarters for about a month during a major incursion into the West Bank after a suicide bomber murdered twenty eight Israelis at a March 2002 Passover seder near Tel Aviv. Israel’s incursion severely damaged the PA’s civil and security infrastructure. Following two deadly suicide bombings in June 2002, Israel announced a new policy of seizing PA-held West Bank land in retaliation for terror attacks.

Is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the same thing as the PA?

No, although the two are interwoven. The PLO is the main umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement and an erstwhile leading practitioner of terrorism. The PLO founded the PA under the terms of a series of 1990s peace pacts. In the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians.

Has the PA cracked down on terrorism?

Not really, although it has had phases where it exerted real effort. Experts say that the PA worked effectively to prevent terrorism for several years in the late 1990s. After the 1998 Wye River accords, CIA monitors oversaw Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. Arafat jailed hundreds of Hamas militants when the group challenged his authority too directly. And before the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, PA security agents routinely patrolled with Israeli troops and worked with Israel’s army and intelligence services against Israel and Arafat’s common foes, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

How did the PA react to the September 11 attacks?

Arafat condemned the atrocities and was filmed donating blood for the victims. Immediately after September 11, the PA pressured Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stay quiet, fearing more attacks might put the Palestinians on the losing side of a global U.S.-led war on terrorism. But Israel scoffed at Arafat’s denunciations, and Sharon called Arafat “our bin Laden.”