Who Governs the Palestinians?
Backgrounder

Who Governs the Palestinians?

Power in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the so-called Palestinian territories, has been divided among three entities: a governing body called the Palestinian Authority, the militant group Hamas, and the state of Israel. But as Israel now seeks to destroy Hamas, it is unclear who would administer Gaza instead.
Palestinians rally beneath images of President Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
Palestinians rally beneath images of President Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • Millions of Palestinians live under the control of a mix of authorities in the Palestinian territories and in refugee camps across the Middle East.
  • In recent decades, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has controlled parts of the West Bank, and the militant group Hamas has run the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israel has exercised power over both areas in different ways.
  • Amid the latest Israel-Hamas war, the PA is facing heightened scrutiny about its ability to run Gaza if Israel destroys Hamas.

Introduction

A complex mix of authorities governs the 5.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank territories. Palestinians, like Jews, trace their ancestry to the geographic area that now forms the state of Israel and the two Palestinian territories. Yet, the Palestinians do not have a universally recognized state, with their aspirations to create one depending not just on Palestinian leadership, but also on Israel and recognition by foreign powers.

More From Our Experts

Officially, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) represents Palestinians worldwide at international fora, while the Palestinian Authority (PA), a newer institution led by a PLO faction known as Fatah, is supposed to govern most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In reality, the PA has overshadowed the PLO, and both are deeply troubled; Israel has exercised significant control over the Palestinian territories, de facto and official; and Gaza has been ruled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which Israel and multiple other countries have designated as a terrorist organization. Palestinian leaders will have to grapple with these and other challenges—including succession concerns and yet another war between Israel and Hamas—to deliver their peoples’ dream of an independent Palestinian state.

Who’s in charge in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank?

More on:

Palestinian Territories

Israel

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Politics and Government

Territorial Disputes

It depends on the location. In the 1990s, the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo Accords and the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, deals that divided areas of control in Gaza and the West Bank (East Jerusalem excluded) between Israel and the newly created Palestinian Authority, with the expectation that the two territories would eventually constitute a Palestinian state. But with the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict still unresolved, the territories remain formally divided into three areas of control:

  • Area A, which consists of most of Gaza and about 17 percent of the West Bank, is the most densely populated and urbanized. It is designated as fully Palestinian controlled under Oslo, including for civil affairs and internal security issues. However, Israel has waged an extensive military campaign in Gaza since October 2023 with the goal of eliminating Hamas, and it has therefore imposed more-stringent movement controls in the territory.
  • Area B covers nearly a quarter of the West Bank and mostly comprises villages and rural areas. Israelis and Palestinians cooperate on security here, but the PA manages all civil affairs. Israel also controls the movement of goods and people. Areas A and B have a combined Palestinian population of about 2.8 million.
  • Area C makes up the remaining land and mostly consists of pastoral areas. It contains most of the West Bank’s natural resources and is under full Israeli control, though the PA provides education and medical services to the area’s 150,000 Palestinians. The area is home to most of Israel’s settlers, who total some 700,000 people spread across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most live near the border with Israel, though international law dubs their settlements illegal.

 

A map of the Palestinian territories showing their division into areas A, B, and C based on Palestinian or Israeli control

More From Our Experts

Since 2006, the Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas, an armed group and political party that was founded during the first Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising, against Israeli rule in 1987–93. (The name Hamas is an acronym for “The Islamic Resistance Movement” in Arabic.) The organization was created out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to compete with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a militant faction that simultaneously aims to destroy the state of Israel and create a Palestinian state governed by Islamic law. Hamas explicitly opposes Israel’s existence and has perpetrated grievous acts of violence against Israelis. Its October 7, 2023, rampage through southern Israel killed more than 1,200 people and spurred the massive Israeli military response aimed at eradicating Hamas. Governments including the United States, Israel, Japan, and the European Union (EU) have designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

Hamas briefly joined the PA, rising to the head of the authority in 2006 after winning general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But it split from the authority months later, when the rival faction Fatah, which has long dominated the PA, refused to recognize Hamas’s election victory. The two went to war, and though Fatah was able to oust Hamas from the West Bank and maintain its sway over Palestinian affairs there, Hamas’s forces prevailed in the Gaza Strip, securing the group’s control over the territory. The Gaza-West Bank schism is severe enough that some experts considered Gaza to be “practically a separate state” before the most recent war with Israel devastated the territory.

More on:

Palestinian Territories

Israel

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Politics and Government

Territorial Disputes

Who governs Palestinians in Jerusalem?

Straddling the border of Israel and the West Bank, the city of Jerusalem has been populated by both Arabs and Jews for centuries. It holds some of the most sacred sites in Christianity and Islam, as well as the holiest sites in Judaism. Today, it is home to many Palestinians and Israelis, though Israel has political control. The peace deal that ended the first Arab-Israeli War in 1949, which was triggered by Israel’s founding the previous year, divided the city between Israeli rule in the west and Jordanian rule in the east. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and it considers the “complete and undivided” city of Jerusalem as its capital due to the Jewish people’s deep historical and religious ties to the city. The United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Kosovo, and Papua New Guinea have constructed embassies to Israel in the western part of Jerusalem. Other countries keep their missions in Tel Aviv because of Jerusalem’s disputed status.

Meanwhile, Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their state, given its centrality to the Palestinian economy, its significance to Muslims in particular, and its Palestinian population of more than 360,000. Nonetheless, Israel’s de facto annexation of East Jerusalem makes it subject to Israeli law. Most Palestinians there are designated as permanent residents of Israel—a status that can be revoked punitively. Most are not citizens of any country; having largely refused Israeli citizenship offered in 1967 or lost Jordanian citizenship after Amman renounced its claim to the West Bank in 1988.

Who oversees Palestinian refugee populations?

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) established in 1949, manages Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Syria in connection with local authorities. These camps house Palestinians displaced by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli Wars, as well as their descendants. Some camps, such as the Rafah and Jabalia camps in Gaza, have evolved into built-up cities. Yet, they remain dependent on UN aid, even though some have populations that exceed one hundred thousand. Close to six million registered refugees are under UNRWA’s remit, though not all reside in camps.

Host governments handle security in the camps, while UNRWA provides health care, housing, and education. UNRWA itself is officially nonpolitical, but experts say [PDF] Fatah wields significant influence over residents in some West Bank refugee camps, as Hamas has done in certain Gaza camps. Additionally, UNRWA has for years faced accusations [PDF] that Hamas has co-opted some of its employees and facilities. In 2024, the agency suffered deep funding cuts when the United States pulled its support due to Israeli allegations that UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack. Around a dozen other countries initially followed the United States’ example, but most soon resumed funding after separate reviews by the agency and independent experts said that Israel did not provide evidence for the allegations.

How does the Palestinian Authority govern?

The PA is headquartered in the West Bank, where it operates from the city of Ramallah. Officially named the Palestinian National Authority, it comprises most major Palestinian factions, such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), but excludes militant groups such as Hamas and PIJ. The authority’s responsibilities are spelled out in the 2002 Basic Law [PDF] that serves as an interim Palestinian constitution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas simultaneously serves as leader of the PA, the PLO, and his party, Fatah, which has the greatest representation in the PA of any faction. In March 2024, Abbas’s longtime economic advisor Mohammad Mustafa replaced Mohammad Shtayyeh as PA prime minister, a position that gives him little power compared to Abbas. His appointment comes as Washington and other governments push for PA reforms that would improve living conditions in the West Bank and show that the authority could responsibly govern Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war.

A diagram of the institutions of the Palestinian territories, showing Mahmoud Abbas as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority

The PA has become synonymous with “corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency,” writes Ghaith al-Omari, a former PA official and current senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Many experts say governance began to seriously erode after Abbas became PLO chairman in 2004. Now nineteen years into what should have been a four-year presidential term, Abbas has concentrated power by dissolving parliament, entrenching his control over the judiciary, introducing laws only by decree, and purging political rivals. In 2021, he blocked presidential and legislative elections that would have been Palestinians’ first since 2006. Abbas blamed the move on Israeli restrictions on voting in East Jerusalem, though experts say he likely feared he and his party would lose to Hamas. International rights watchdog Freedom House classifies the PA as “authoritarian” and the West Bank as “not free” due to poor Palestinian governance and Israel’s occupation.

Abbas also oversees the West Bank’s security forces, which consist of police and other security officers but cannot constitute a conventional military, per the Oslo Accords. They work in coordination with the Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), to stamp out Hamas and other armed groups and have also faced accusations of brutality against Palestinian civilians. As a result, many Palestinians view the security forces as instruments of Israel’s occupation, rather than as protectors of the rule of law. In addition, Israeli and Palestinian observers alike blame the weakness of the PA and its security forces for the proliferation of new armed groups that increasingly targeted Israel starting in 2022.

Without full autonomy over Gaza and the West Bank, the PA’s powers of economic policy are limited. The authority relies on international aid, which is generally conditioned on the PA’s recognition of Israel and commitment to nonviolence. However, some donor countries have cut aid in recent years, citing mismanagement by the PA. Meanwhile, Hamas has been blocked from U.S. and EU aid given its status as a terrorist entity, though it has various other funding sources, both legal and illicit.

How has Hamas governed the Gaza Strip?

After taking control of Gaza, Hamas established political, military, and legal institutions entirely separate from those in the West Bank. Though Hamas set up its seat of government in Gaza City, many top officials have chosen to live abroad full time, including political chief Ismail Haniyeh and diaspora affairs leader Khaled Meshaal, who both live in Qatar. As with the PA and West Bank, Freedom House has also labeled Hamas’s government as “authoritarian” and Gaza as “not free.” Before the current war shattered all semblance of day-to-day life in Gaza, Hamas had nominally followed the PA’s Basic Law, but also implemented a restrictive interpretation of Islamic law that it used to repress the rights of women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups. In addition, the Hamas government had removed most checks on its power, having suppressed opposition from Gazan media outlets, politicians, civilian activists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), often through violence and arbitrary arrest.

A diagram of Hamas's governing structure, showing the Politburo at the top

How much control does Israel have over Palestinians?

West Bank. Israel officially controls only Area C of the West Bank in full, implementing policy through its Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which also liaises with the PA. However, Israeli legal and military powers extend to all three areas. Israel also has full legal jurisdiction over all Jewish settlers, who total about five hundred thousand people in the West Bank and two hundred thousand in East Jerusalem. (A 2016 UN Security Council resolution reaffirmed that Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law. The United States, which frequently uses its veto power on the council to block resolutions censuring Israel, abstained from the vote, helping it to pass.) Israeli civil law covers settlers, while Palestinians, even where subject to PA laws, are tried in the IDF’s military courts.

Additionally, the Oslo Accords authorized Israel to collect Palestinian taxes for the PA in the areas that Israel controls. However, Israel deducts money from the payments based on a sum that Israeli government experts calculate that the PA spends funding terrorism. This amount usually refers to PA payments to families of “martyrs,” meaning civilians and combatants killed in violence related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and payments to the families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Israel says the payments incentivize terrorism and therefore withholds [PDF] approximately $100–$185 million in Palestinian taxes annually, an amount equal to around 2–4 percent of the PA’s budget.

To protect its own national security, Israel has imposed stringent movement restrictions in both territories. These include numerous military checkpoints in the West Bank, as well as a barrier wall that spans hundreds of miles across that territory. An onerous part of daily life for many Palestinians, Israel’s security measures “limit Palestinian development in the West Bank while creating conditions akin to a nearly closed economy on Gaza,” according to the World Bank.

Gaza Strip. Israel captured Gaza during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and militarily occupied the territory until 2005, when it pulled out its troops and settlers. In the years before its 2023 invasion, Israel implemented various controls over Gaza that it said were needed to prevent terrorism against Israelis. It restricted Gaza’s airspace, borders, cellular frequencies, coastal waters, and electricity supply, among other areas. It had also barred locals from entering buffer zones on the border with Israel, which cover around 20 percent of Gaza. Wary that Hamas had been found to divert imported goods and foreign aid to bolster its military capabilities, Israel also prevented Gaza from importing “dual-use” items, meaning items with potential military as well as civilian purposes. The import blacklist had at times included certain foods, medical equipment, and construction materials. Similar but less stringent restrictions still apply to the West Bank. It is unclear what restrictions Israel would maintain on Gaza if it succeeds in dismantling Hamas.

Israel’s controls in the Palestinian territories are highly controversial. Proponents of the extensive security apparatus say it has fortified Israeli national security, while critics say the policies violate Palestinian rights and disrupt essential services. In a 2022 report, the UN-appointed special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories went so far as to argue that Israel’s two-tiered legal system in the West Bank qualifies as apartheid, a position that has spurred intense debate. Some observers, including U.S. and Israeli officials, have said the report reflects a history of anti-Israel bias by the United Nations. Since the UN document’s release, independent human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel’s B’Tselem, have also published reports accusing Israel of apartheid.

How do Palestinian leaders approach foreign policy?

The Arab League established the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people, and it is this body that represents them at many international fora. At the United Nations, the PLO received “observer” status in 1974 and “non-member observer state” status, under the name “State of Palestine,” in 2012. It still holds this status but received additional, limited rights and privileges amid a renewed push for full membership in 2024. The United States and Israel both oppose PLO aspirations for full member status. Additionally, 146 of 193 UN member countries have independently recognized Palestinian statehood, with seven doing so in the first half of 2024: the Bahamas, Barbados, Ireland, Jamaica, Norway, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago. 

Meanwhile, 165 UN members recognize Israel, which has been a UN member state since 1949. Most of the countries that deny Israel’s sovereignty are predominantly Arab or Muslim. In recent years, Palestinian leaders have urged Arab countries not to normalize relations with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords, as Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates have done. Egypt and Jordan established relations with Israel in 1979 and 1984, respectively.

While the Fatah-dominated PLO was the main organ for Palestinian diplomacy until the Oslo Accords, the PA has since overshadowed it to become the de facto representative of Palestinians. Foreign governments largely interact with the PA and shun Hamas, providing aid to Gaza through other channels, such as UN agencies. However, a handful of countries, namely Iran, Qatar, Russia, and Turkey, have open relations with Hamas.

Seeking support for the Palestinian national movement, the PLO has pushed for full UN membership and joined multiple international organizations, including the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Most notably, it acceded to the Rome Statute in 2015, making it a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC). At the PA’s behest, the ICC has opened a probe into possible war crimes committed by Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

How is the PA involved in the Israel-Hamas war?

The aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel has reinforced the widely held belief that the PA in its current form has become “basically irrelevant,” in the words of CFR Middle East expert Steven A. Cook. The authority sat on the sidelines during the conflict’s first few months, underscoring its lack of power over violent factions such as Hamas and its inability to stem the Palestinian suffering caused by Israel’s retaliation.

The PA’s perceived ineffectiveness, plus Israel’s pledge to wipe out Hamas over the October 7 attack, has raised the question of who would run Gaza instead. “Trying to establish a Palestinian Authority government in Gaza, with help from Arab states, is probably the least-bad option,” writes CFR national security expert Max Boot. Experts have viewed the Shtayyeh government’s February 2024 resignation as the first step in a U.S.-backed plan for a reinvigorated PA to administer Gaza. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far rejected the idea, proposing instead that Israel maintain indefinite control over the West Bank and Gaza after the war.

What challenges do Palestinian leaders face?

Disunity. Political infighting has fractured what was once a fairly unified national movement, precluding Palestinian leaders from negotiating with Israel, organizing elections, and articulating a coherent vision to their supporters. Furthermore, a plurality of Palestinians [PDF] call the Gaza-West Bank split the most damaging development for their people since Israel’s founding, but past reconciliation attempts by Hamas and the PA all failed, and Israel’s new vow to eliminate Hamas has further complicated the issue.

Eroding legitimacy. President Abbas and the multiple bodies he oversees are widely unpopular, as polling by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has shown. More than half the Palestinians whom PCPSR surveyed in June 2023 supported dissolving the PA, which many deride as beholden to Israel. Experts at the International Crisis Group, an independent nongovernmental organization, echoed that sentiment in a February 2023 report: “The [PA] has never lived up to expectations that it would become the foundation of an independent Palestinian state; instead, it has become, as its harshest critics contend, a mere subcontractor to Israel in maintaining the military occupation.”

Financial matters. As the top employer in the West Bank, the PA directly funds the livelihoods of around 130,000 public-sector workers. Yet, the deeply indebted authority faces bankruptcy and is unable to pay full salaries. The World Bank reports that the PA needs various reforms to right itself financially, along with additional donor assistance and reduced economic restrictions from Israel.

Succession. Abbas’s advanced age and history of health issues have raised concerns about the lack of clear plans for leadership change. Various succession procedures for the PA and PLO exist, but Abbas has disabled the institutions that would uphold them. While he has no clear successor, experts say candidates could include Abbas’s aide Hussein al-Sheikh and popular Fatah member Marwan Barghouti. In a hypothetical election, more voters would prefer Barghouti, write Arab Barometer pollsters Amaney A. Jamal and Michael Robbins, despite Barghouti’s current imprisonment for orchestrating attacks on Israelis.

A failed leadership transition could trigger clashes for power or even the PA’s collapse, which experts say could spell disaster despite the authority’s flaws. “Whatever else one may say about the PA and its complicity in Israel’s colonisation, dispossession and annexation, it provides vital support in the form of jobs and essential services to millions of Palestinians,” the International Crisis Group writes. “A botched succession would thus be harmful for all main players in this conflict, but most of all for Palestinians in the occupied territories themselves.”

Recommended Resources

This UN timeline traces pivotal political developments in Palestinian history.

The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) offers a more in-depth look at Palestinian governance [PDF].

The European Council on Foreign Relations maps the most prominent individuals and institutions Palestinian politics.

In a two-part series, Haaretz’s David B. Green breaks down Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on Jerusalem’s status.

Palestinian economist Raja Khalidi makes a case for establishing Palestinian state amid the war in Gaza in this Foreign Affairs article.

For Foreign Affairs, former PA official Ghaith al-Omari previews the succession crisis that could unfold once Mahmoud Abbas leaves power.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
Close
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail

Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphics for this Backgrounder.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
Close

Top Stories on CFR

Trade

U.S. Presidents Trump and Biden have both turned to tariffs to support local industries amid economic confrontation with China. Here’s how these taxes work and how they’ve been used historically.

 

Russia

The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.