Who would be Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas? On top of the complex international struggle he is masterminding in an attempt to achieve Palestinian statehood without the inconvenience of actually negotiating with Israel, the embattled 80-year-old is engaged in two vicious intra-Palestinian conflicts much closer to home. Abbas could, with much validity, claim to be surrounded by enemies – most of them fellow Palestinians.
Most obvious of these, to the outside world at least, is his on-going struggle against Hamas, an extreme Islamist body, categorized as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United States and a clutch of other countries. Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip, is contemptuous of the other main Palestinian political party, Fatah, for its flirtation with the idea of making peace with Israel.
Rejecting Fatah’s strategy of ousting Israel step-by-step from the Middle East – a strategy formulated by the late PA president, Yasser Arafat – Hamas has consistently refused to recognize Israel at all, much less engage in direct negotiations with it or contemplate the idea of a two-state solution. Hamas has said it would never acknowledge Israel’s right to exist on a single inch of sacred Palestinian soil.
This is why, in 2008, Hamas took the first opportunity It could to split away from any formal union with Fatah, and why every attempt at reconciliation – and there have been many over the years – has failed. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip in August 2005 was intended as a positive step towards resolving the perennial Israel-Palestinian dispute. The idea was for the PA to hold democratic elections across the whole of the Palestinian population, after which a national unity government could be formed with which Israel might finally achieve a peace accord.
In the event, and perhaps not surprisingly, Hamas – champions of the armed struggle against Israel – won a majority within the Gaza strip. Mahmoud Abbas’s subsequent attempt to form a government was scuppered when Hamas refused to serve in it, but used the election results as an excuse to turn on its Fatah compatriots and, in a bloody coup d’état, seize control of the Gaza strip. Since then every effort to unify the Palestinian body politic has failed, even Abbas’s new “unity” government of June 2014, which attempted to square a stubbornly round circle by including no Hamas politicians, only so-called “technocrats”.
Welcomed by the UN and the EU, among others, this façade provided Abbas with the illusion of speaking on behalf of the whole Palestinian population. It has lasted no longer than other such efforts. It was dissolved on June 17, on the legitimate grounds that the unity government was being prevented from operating in the Gaza Strip.
The plain fact of the matter is that Hamas is intent on overthrowing the Fatah-controlled PA, and with it Mahmoud Abbas, whom they have ceased to acknowledge as its legitimate leader. And indeed they have a point,
Abbas was elected on 9 January 2005 as President of the PA for a four-year term. Hamas maintained that from the moment Abbas’s mandate expired on 9 January 2009, Aziz al-Dewik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council should have become interim president until new elections could be held. They never happened. Meanwhile, Abbas sails serenely on, acknowledged on all sides as President of the PA, or President of the State of Palestine, depending on preference.
Aware of his democratic deficit, Abbas is determined to quash Hamas’s continuous efforts to overturn Fatah control of the PA. In overnight raids on July 2 the PA arrested more than 120 Hamas members, including senior Hamas officials, for planning attacks in the West Bank. Adnan al Dmairi, spokesperson for the PA security services, vowed : “We will use all legal means to stop Hamas from plunging the West Bank into anarchy and bloodshed.”
The raids were carried out a day after Israel announced that some 40 Hamas members had been arrested over the past few months for plotting attacks. Inevitably Hamas claimed that the PA and Israel were in cahoots.
Hassan Yousef, a prominent Hamas representative said the arrests showed that the PA security forces were being used as “tools to serve Israeli security,” adding that they were operating on instructions from Israel following the recent spate of terror attacks against Israelis.
Meanwhile, so rife are the suspicions within the Palestinian body politic, that the same charge is being levelled by the PA against Hamas.
Alec Fishman, a political journalist working for the Israel-based 24-hour news channel, i24 news, reported in April that for several weeks official representatives of the Israeli government had been liaising with Hamas in a bid to reach a long-term quietus between the sides. He claimed that this dialog is in response to a concrete and detailed proposal from Hamas, received at the start of 2015, for an agreement on a period of calm of five to 10 years.
The report was apparently substantiated by Hamas leader Ahmad Yousef, who told Maan News that there were “chats” taking place between the Islamist movement and Israel under European mediation.
“The PA,” claimed Fishman, “is fuming with anger. The media in Ramallah are accusing Israel of helping Hamas in Gaza establish itself as a rival leadership.”
Talking of leadership, this is where Abbas is being challenged from within. Three individuals have been bugging him – Abed Rabbo, a veteran PLO official and former information minister; former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad; and ousted Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan. On July 1 it was announced that Abed Rabbo had been removed as PLO secretary general. Four days later Abbas appointed Saeb Erekat to the post. Erekat, who has served, on and off, as chief PLO negotiator for the past two decades, has accordingly been considerably strengthened in his chances of eventually becoming head of the PA.
Rabbo was fired on the grounds that he had plotted with Salam Fayyad and Muhammad Dahlan to oust Abbas. It was claimed that Rabbo recently visited the United Arab Emirates, where he held secret talks with Dahlan, who has been living there ever since Abbas expelled him from Fatah four years ago. Then Abbas accused Dahlan of conspiring against the PA leadership, of murder and of financial corruption – charges Dahlan strongly denied.
And so it goes within Palestinian political circles – attempts by one political faction to gain power at the expense of the other; treacherous plots against the leader; and charge and counter-charge of conspiring with the universal enemy, Israel. Is a negotiated peace ever likely to emerge from this maelstrom?