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Hamas supporters position to take over West Bank

Hardline nationalists and intellectuals believe Abbas has run their cause dead and are agitating to supplant the PA with an authority that gives more power to Hamas.
Ben Lynfield
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PA President Mahmoud Abbas

PA President Mahmoud Abbas

Published: 24 June 2024

Last updated: 25 June 2024

While the Gaza war rages, hardline Palestinian nationalists and intellectuals are working against the odds to curtail the grip of Mahmoud Abbas and his associates over Palestinian political institutions in the West Bank.

Their attempted challenge has been enabled by the long-term failure of Abbas’s political strategy of achieving a compromise peace agreement with Israel that would end occupation and achieve independence within a two-state framework.

The dissenters, who number about 1300 people, include diaspora figures from some 45 countries, according to activists. Many who have signed a petition backing the effort are supporters of groups at war with Israel, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for the slaughter that stunned the country on October 7 and triggered its brutal response in Gaza.

The dissenters, who number about 1300 people, include diaspora figures from some 45 countries.

Pushing for more power for Hamas and other groupings and less for Abbas’s Fatah movement is justified in the eyes of those challenging the status quo, since polls show Hamas continuing to gain in popularity in the West Bank and Gaza amid wide perceptions that it is an authentic force of resistance in the face of an alleged Israeli “genocide” of Gazans.

Abbas, now 88, has not groomed a successor, raising the possibility of chaos in his wake.

But this is not exclusively an initiative to bolster Hamas and stake out postwar influence for its campaign. Among the dissidents are independents or loyalists of smaller secular factions who share a belief that Abbas and his approach have brought the Palestinian cause to a dead end and that political institutions have long ceased being representative or viable.

Abbas, now 88, enjoys scant popularity or, his critics note, legitimacy. He has not groomed a successor, raising the possibility of chaos in his wake. His term as Palestinian Authority president expired in 2009. The Palestinian Legislative Council ceased functioning amid the split in Palestinian politics in the wake of Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory and the fundamentalist group’s subsequent armed takeover of Gaza.

“A unified political authority needs to be formed as soon as possible within the framework of the PLO on a democratic basis, which includes all the Palestinian people,” says the petition of the dissenters.

But analysts in Ramallah doubt the effort will gain significant traction or pose much of a threat to Abbas.

“They don’t have real tools on the ground,” says Jihad Harb, director of the Thabat Center for Research and Opinion Polls. “This will remain an elite movement without real popularity.”

Reinforcing this prediction is the fact that the perceived initiator of the effort is former Israeli Knesset legislator Azmi Bishara, a person known in some intellectual circles in the Arab world but lacking a following in the West Bank.

He relocated from Nazareth to Qatar in 2006 after coming under police investigation for allegedly serving as a spy for Hezbollah. Bishara denied this, but said he had to flee Israel because he would not get a fair trial there.

He heads the Arab Center for Research and Studies in Qatar and addressed a conference there in February to weigh strategies in light of the Gaza war and discuss PLO reform. This meeting and subsequent discussions paved the way for the petition.

The perceived initiator is former Israeli MK Azmi Bishara, known in some Arab circles but lacking support in the West Bank.

Qatar is a close ally of Hamas, a red flag for the Abbas regime, which is currently hoping to get more Western countries to accord diplomatic recognition to Palestinian statehood.

The phrase “all the Palestinian people” in the petition signifies bringing Hamas into the heart of national decision-making, thereby constituting a rejection of US and Israeli efforts to remove it from the Gaza and West Bank equations.

The mechanism for Hamas’s inclusion would be “reform” or expansion and empowerment of the PLO — the longstanding framework and apparatus of the Palestinian independence drive that has been marginalised since 1993 by the Palestinian Authority’s running of self-rule after being established as part of the Oslo agreements with Israel.

Abbas heads the PLO executive committee, the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah central committee, on paper a recipe for an authoritarian concentration of power. In practice, however, the real power is wielded by Israel, seen by critics as stymying the PA and now, with policies dictated by the extremist leader of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, casting doubt on its continued existence.  

Abbas has been clinging to security ties with Israel despite this dynamic, which has left him open to charges he is effectively a contractor for Israeli occupation. The dissenters want to put an end to this co-operation, which is extremely unpopular among the public.

They don’t have real tools on the ground. This will remain an elite movement without real popularity.

Jihad Harb, director of the Thabat Center for Research and Opinion Polls.

Defenders of Abbas say that both Hamas and Israel, which has effectively blocked the holding of PA elections, are responsible for its inability to bring gains to the public. But the petition has touched a raw nerve: Fatah’s Central Committee slammed it as a foreign plot against the Palestinians.

“A group outside the national consensus and those who stand behind it and finance it aim to split the Palestinian cause,” it said in a statement. The PLO executive committee, meanwhile, said the dissenters are fronting for “regional parties who emerge under national names in a desperate attempt to form an alternative to the PLO”.

Mustafa Barghouthi, who heads the small but well known Palestinian National Initiative grouping that endorsed the petition, told the Jewish Independent that it is not a bid to flush out Abbas’s coterie. “It’s not about new or old blood. It’s about unity- that all Palestinian groups have to be unified in one leadership and that the framework is the PLO,” he said.

“This has been going on for months but the grave situation with the genocide in Gaza requires the utmost unity of Palestinians,” he added.

However, for Qatar University international relations professor Ahmad Jamil Azem, who is an independent member of two PLO bodies, this effort has roots in the dashing of hope that negotiations could bring about an independent Palestinian state after the Oslo Agreement. He cited Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Israel’s move to the far right, “and frankly the adoption of ethnic cleansing policies.

“The Palestinian people are left facing occupation, no peace process, no representative bodies, no political regime,” he wrote in response to questions from the Jewish Independent. “Facing daily aggression and the continuity of suffering of refugees and Palestinians in exile, students, activists, ex-prisoners in the Israeli prisons, business men and women and others are demanding the relaunching of the PLO to be the political representation for the path of ending the occupation and building their state.”

Azem, whose roots are in Jerusalem, added: “I personally am interested in new generations taking their place in leading the Palestinian society.”

But Ghassan Khatib, a West Bank academic specialist in political communication and former PA minister of planning, declined an invitation to sign the petition. “It’s a reflection of the current balance of power, of the existing political map. Those against Abu Mazen (Abbas) support this initiative and those who support Abu Mazen are against it. It doesn’t add anything new.”

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

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