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Who governs the West Bank? Understanding Palestinian political leadership


Political leadership in Israel, namely that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been subject to great scrutiny as the conflict between Israel and Hamas deepens. But Palestinian leadership faces its own set of political challenges. For a closer look at the leadership challenges among Palestinians, we're joined now by Salam Fayyad. He's former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and is now a visiting scholar at Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Welcome to the program.

SALAM FAYYAD: Thank you very much, Ayesha. Thank you for having me on.

RASCOE: So Hamas operates primarily in Gaza while the Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank. But at this moment, how much support does Hamas have among Palestinians living across the two territories?

FAYYAD: Hamas has significant support to the Palestinian public. I recall around the '90s, it used to poll around 10, 12, 13%, something like that. But that's now distant memory. Since then, it has gained standing with the Palestinian public over the years. And as you may recall, they won outright majority in the parliamentary elections that took place in 2006. So this is an organization that did have and still has considerable support from the Palestinian public. There are many reasons for this, but that's the way it is right now.

RASCOE: Has that support changed at all since Hamas' attack on Israel earlier this month?

FAYYAD: I have not really seen any data, but I can imagine, if anything, Hamas' standing has risen because, if you may recall, when they launched that attack on southern Israel, they did so against the backdrop of grievances which actually resonate with the Palestinian public at large, whether in relation to the status of what's going on in Jerusalem, what has gone on in the West Bank, settler violence and all - not to mention the difficult conditions in Gaza, continuing occupation, the rest of it. All of these are legitimate Palestinian concerns, and that's what Hamas has been projecting for quite some time now. And this is backdrop against which they said they launched that attack.

RASCOE: Let's turn to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. It's important to note that Abbas is from the Fatah political party, which, unlike Hamas, recognizes Israel. But many Palestinians seem to believe that his day has passed. Is there an alternative to Abbas, especially since now Israel is saying it's going to eliminate Hamas?

FAYYAD: Let me begin with the latter, the objective that Israel set out for itself - the elimination of Hamas. I think that is a tall order. That's an impossibility, given that Hamas is a political movement, one that stands on ideology. And you cannot eliminate an ideology. Now, in terms of what that did to the Palestinian Authority, each time there was a round of escalation done in Gaza, they sustained losses with the public. And right now, with blood being spilled constantly, with thousands of Palestinian casualties - so when you have that kind of situation, obviously, that actually contributes to the weakness. It undermines the standing of the Palestinian Authority with the public.

And that explains why there are demonstrations - and, by the way, not only in the Palestinian Authority territories but elsewhere in the Arab world. So what must happen, as a matter of fact - and this is the key challenge for us Palestinians - is to try to reconfigure the Palestinian Authority and strengthen it so that it can really handle that responsibility, which was the key reason why it was established in 1994. And it was to become a state, but we're really far from there.

RASCOE: That's Salam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FAYYAD: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.