Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine


Dana El Kurd, Assistant Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, delivered a CIRS talk on January 13, 2020, on the effects that authoritarian strategies have had on polarization and collective action in Palestinian society. The talk was based on her recently published book, Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine, which examines the impact of international involvement on political development and state-society relations in the Palestinian territories, particularly in the deterioration of democratic processes.

El Kurd explained that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been in power in the Palestinian territories since 1993 (and today, just in the West Bank). The PA emerged in the mid-nineties out of the Oslo process, and was meant to serve as an interim government, to govern until the expected Israeli withdrawal from territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 1999. However, Israel did not adhere to this agreement. In the meantime, the PA bureaucracy quickly expanded, created various security and police forces, and became the largest employer in the territory under its control. Furthermore, international organizations became increasingly involved in Palestinian politics, and external funding strengthened the power of the PA, entrenching its position. Numerous Palestinian opposition groups arose to challenge the PA’s centralization of power; these included, for example, Hamas and other Islamist groups.

Some have argued that the Palestinian Authority has “acted as a ‘subcontractor of repression’ for the Israeli occupation, in the sense that they police on behalf of the Israeli occupation. They have become a kind of authoritarian indigenous regime overlaid on top of a foreign occupation.”

According to El Kurd, some argue that the PA has “acted as a ‘subcontractor of repression’ for the Israeli occupation, in the sense that they police on behalf of the Israeli occupation. They have become a kind of authoritarian indigenous regime overlaid on top of a foreign occupation.” The PA has been able to co-opt large segments of the Palestine population and they have increasingly used repression to control people, she said. Their security apparatus has greatly expanded since 2007, following the Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative elections (and subsequent removal from power), and there is greater coordination with the Israeli occupation. “There have been well-documented increases in torture and arrests, and limitations on academic and media freedom,” she said.

“After the Arab Spring, we saw this sort of rise in polarization and fragmentation,” and El Kurd examined the conditions that have divided Palestinians and divested them of political power. “We all know that the main goal of authoritarian regimes is to control their populations, and they utilize different strategies or combinations of strategies, such as cooptation or repression,” El Kurd said. However, regimes target different groups using different strategies, and she suspected those strategies themselves might be at the root of social polarization in Palestine and a decline in political mobilization.

El Kurd conducted a survey experiment in the Palestinian territories in conjunction with the Palestine Survey Research Center, and she held interviews with Palestinian decision makers to collect their views on democracy and accountability to assess the role of international involvement in determining attitudes. She used lab-in-field experiments, qualitative data, and statistical analysis with a protest dataset. Her primary research questions were: What is the effect of varying authoritarian strategies on polarization? And, how does that polarization affect collective action?

Her theoretical argument links authoritarianism and polarization, and she explained that authoritarian regimes use strategies selectively, bringing certain groups into the fold while repressing others. While El Kurd argued that authoritarian strategies generate polarization, she also explained that the type of strategy matters: “cooptation is inclusionary and repression is exclusionary.” Additionally, she found inclusionary strategies generate polarization to a smaller degree than exclusionary strategies. Consequently, she argued that the selective nature of authoritarian strategies is a cause of polarization, translating into a “lack of capacity for collective action through two main mechanisms: insularity within groups, and grievances between them.”

El Kurd was able to measure the Palestinian people’s willingness to engage in collective action in various and diversified ways. Her findings indicate that repression strategies lead to a decline in the willingness to engage in collective action, specifically for what she considers as targeted groups: the Islamists and leftists. This “exclusionary strategy seems to generate less willingness to cooperate” than the cooptation strategy.

El Kurd found that exclusionary strategies had the greatest effect on behavior, with repression causing polarization in society. “In the Palestine case, this helps to explain why different groups—who might have similar ideas about the Palestinian Authority, and similar ideas about the occupation—are not coordinating properly, and they seem to be unable to surmount these coordination problems.” She also explained that this finding applies to dynamics in the broader Arab world, where authoritarian governments have had similar effects on societal cohesion.

Dana El Kurd is a Researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, and Assistant Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in the Critical Security Studies program. She specializes in comparative politics and international relations. She has published in Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Al-Araby al-Jadeed, and academic journals such as Parameters, Journal of Global Security Studies, Contemporary Arab Affairs, Middle East Law and Governance, and the Journal of Arabian Studies, among others. She is the author of the Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine (Hurst and Oxford University Press, 2020).

Article by Chaïmaa Benkermi (Class of 2021), Publications Fellow