Traditionally, the Palestinian problem is considered by the international community (or rather’ by those politicians, UN officials, experts and journalists who call themselves so, dealing with it for generations and largely creating it) as the struggle of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Hamas (or Ramallah and Gaza) with Israel for the creation of a Palestinian state, within the framework of the “Oslo Accords” or outside of them. Few people are interested in the real situation, including who, why and for what purpose represents the Palestinians on the world stage, how much these people earn on this, in what relations they are among themselves, etc. The armed struggle between Hamas and Fatah, as well as within them, Palestinian notables’ relations with western and regional sponsors, as well as with Israel, and the real ones, not the ones they demonstrate to the world when and if they are ever described, will form the basis of a world’s bestseller.
However there is little chance for this. For a quarter century, the author personally knows the leader of the PNA, Rais Mahmoud Abbas, and the experts of the Middle East Institute are studying the Palestinian question. Some of its aspects are covered in this article, which is based on the materials of the MEI expert V. Korochkina.
Invited to the Start
The struggle for succession among key members of the Palestinian leadership, following the expected resignation of the 83-year-old Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as head of the Palestinian National Authority, has begun. Candidates for senior positions in the PNA are engaged in raising funds and recruiting fighters from the Tanzim (Fatah youth combat wing), preparing for the struggle for power. Senior officials of the West Bank, the Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are recruiting fighters, considering themselves to be worthy candidates to replace Abbas, the head of the PNA of 13 years. We are talking about the fight for the three posts: President of the Palestinian Authority (Abbas, January 2013), Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and President of Fatah. Militia groups have to protect them, if, after Abbas’s departure, large-scale clashes start.
Among the members of the Fatah leadership, which has got the support of the Armed Forces, features 65-year old Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the Security Services of the Palestinian Authority, Majid Faraj (55) the head of the Olympic Committee of the Palestinian National Authority and Chairman of the Palestinian Football Federation, his colleague, 67-year old Mahmoud al-Aloul, the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence, former governor of Nablus, now Deputy Chairman of the Fatah Central Committee, as well as 70 year-old Tawfik Tirawi, the former head of the Palestinian General Intelligence in the West Bank during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), member of the Fatah Central Committee. Rajoub is the leading candidate to replace Abbas; he heads the camp opposing the Union of Faraj and al-Aloul.
Members of the Fatah leadership are ready to distribute weapons among kinsmen on D-Day. Some of the armed groups are located in refugee camps on the West Bank. They are created from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a paramilitary wing of Fatah, which took an active part in the Second Intifada. Tirawi is considered to be an influential figure in the refugee camp “Balata” in Nablus. Faraj, whose childhood was spent in the newly created UN Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, is the authority there. Rajoub controls the centres of power in the districts of Hebron and Ramallah. Al-Aloul after a number of years of leadership of Tanzim, maintains close relations with this organisation. Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti are also on the list of those involved in the preparation for the “division of Abbas’s legacy”.
In 2017, when pressure increased on Abbas from the Fatah leadership to appoint a successor, he made Mahmoud al-Aloul his Deputy, who was not suitable for the unification of Fatah, but for the loosening of the situation in the PNA. A number of armed groups reject him because of him being the former head of Tanzim. Since his inheritance of power from Yasser Arafat in November 2004, Abbas has removed from his circle all those who could become his rival. He banished Dahlan from Fatah, expelled him from the West Bank and persecuted his people, who went underground. Some of them, having moved to Gaza, live under Hamas rule. Among them is Sufyan Abu Zeidah, former Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs. Rajoub’s authoritative powers were also limited. Abbas removed him from the post of National Security Advisor and made him Chairman of the sports federation. Even Yasser Abed Rabbo, who was considered the closest advisor to Abbas, distanced himself from the post of Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee three years ago.
A compromise candidate, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah is holding the post for five years, after his predecessor economist Salam Fayyad was dismissed by Abbas after 6 years of Premiership. Fayyad became a Professor at Princeton University. He recently held a meeting with Abbas, after which the PNA representatives reported that Fayyad would return as head of the Government of National Unity for the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Hamdallah has good relations with Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Hamdallah’s professional qualities, former President of the University of al-Najah in Nablus, his attitude to his duties and the belief of most West Bank Palestinians in his responsibility and patriotic motivation contrast with the image of Abbas, whose ratings are unstable.
Hamdallah is not a Fatah member, he does not have an army or a group of supporters to fight for him, but he can prevent a civil war if Fatah leaders do not eliminate him. On March 13, he survived an assassination attempt in Gaza. If the next leader is Hamdallah or Fayyad, even as Prime Minister and not Chairman of the PNA, it will be easier to deal with the economic crisis in Gaza and the West Bank.
According to sociological surveys, a popular political figure is the chemist-doctor and businessman Adnan Majali, a US citizen, the youngest of the contenders for power. He made a fortune in the pharmaceutical industry. Majali, Abbas’s unofficial spokesman is in contact with Hamas. During his visit to Gaza at the end of June, he proposed that the Armed Forces should be under a single command accountable to the Government of National Unity. Most of the proposals related to the development of the economy and infrastructure, which meant the rejection of the fight against Israel and this provoked criticism. Majali’s relations with the US Administration are well established.
The Scenario of a Plan
There are several scenarios being considered in Israel on the development of the situation after Abbas’s departure from office. One option is to create a sustainable Fatah coalition in which power is distributed among the Palestinian clans, which will no longer be subordinated to one leader. It is possible that conflicts between members of the PNA leadership will escalate into clashes that will plunge the organisation into anarchy similar to the Second Intifada. This will benefit Hamas, which will be able to take power in the West Bank amid the chaos in the Fatah leadership.
Abbas is still on a hard course, which contributes to the isolation of Ramallah. He believes that the United States is trying to lead him astray, the essence of which is a diplomatic and armed struggle with Israel. According to him, Washington, recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and reducing the budget of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is trying to divide the Palestinian political arena into two parts and transfer the Gaza Strip to Hamas. The leaders of Fatah are concerned that the American Administration boycott leads to a deadlock. But PNA high-ranking officials, who are trying to soften the tone of his communication with representatives of the White House, did not succeed. At the same time, President Trump continues his policy of eliminating UNRWA.
The question of Mahmoud Abbas’s successor, who inherited power from Arafat, arose not only because of his age, but also because of the failures of the PNA, as well as the Palestinians’ dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and their political status. It is unclear whether one leader will come to power or whether the PNA will manage to consolidate before the elections. The centres of power formed in the PNA are not intended to gain military control but to strengthen the status of their senior officials in future negotiations on authority. Israeli experts lean towards three scenarios: chaos and armed lawlessness; an unstable situation without a leader, but with a number of centres of power and stability; a collective leadership due to the clannish nature of the Palestinian society. It is obvious that Israel will not allow Hamas to power in the West Bank, preferring Fatah. The Israeli leadership is trying to leave Hamas in Gaza and help it stabilise the humanitarian situation there.
The Discordant Voice of the People
From June 26 to July 7, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, conducted a survey of Palestinian public opinion. A random sample of 1,200 people over 18 years of age in the West Bank and Gaza, in 134 districts, selected in accordance with the population, was interviewed. Seven hundred and fifteen (715) people were interviewed in the West Bank and four hundred eighty-five (85) in the Gaza Strip. The survey showed that the majority of Palestinians surveyed (60.6%) support the position of the Palestinian leadership not to recognise the United States as the sole mediator in the peace process. However, only 28.1% agree with the decision of the PNA leadership to abandon contacts with the United States after the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The majority (80.3%) do not expect that the “Deal of the Century” on the Middle East settlement, promoted by the US Administration, will have acceptable results for the Palestinians, unlike 6.8%, who believe that they will be normal for the Palestinian community. The survey showed that the Palestinian society is split almost in half by those who support a return to peace talks (49.1%) and those who oppose, 45.6%.
On the question “Do you think that the reports of behind-the-scenes talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia are authentic or not?” 66% of Palestinians say it’s true and 18% say no. The survey revealed a slight increase in support for the Palestinian leadership. This was facilitated by the position of the ruling elite on the recently announced by the administration of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” after the recognition by Washington of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The percentage of those who trust the head of the PNA Mahmoud Abbas rose to 11.1% when in January 2018 it amounted to 10.6%. Twenty-six percent of respondents believe that Abbas is “good” doing his job, 30%, “average” and 35% “bad”. In addition, during the same period there was an increase in the share of those who trust Fatah more than other political factions, from 22.3% to 25%.
Answering the question “Whom would you vote for if the elections were held now and the current head of the PNA Mahmoud Abbas and the head of the Hamas Politburo Ismail Haniyah participated in them,” most of the respondents (35.3%) would vote for Abbas, while 19.3% would vote for Haniyah. It should also be noted that 45.4% of respondents said they did not know whom they would vote for. If Mahmoud Abbas does not participate in the elections, 11.7% of the respondents will vote for Marwan Barghouti, 11.6% will vote for Ismail Haniyah, and 8.3% will vote for Muhammad Dahlan. It is worth noting that 55.6% of respondents found it difficult to answer for whom they want to vote.
As for the effectiveness of the PNA, the majority of respondents (57.5%) rated it as “good”, while 42.5% consider the activities of the PNA unsatisfactory. These results have hardly changed in recent years. Regarding the future of the PNA, the majority of respondents (56.1%) support its preservation and consider it necessary to support, and 29.6% said that they do not see any sense in it, so it should be dissolved.
The 1993 Oslo Accords with Israel are increasingly viewed in a negative light over time as agreements that have harmed Palestinian national interests. In the survey on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the agreements, 46.5% of respondents believe this, while 11,9% believe that they have benefited, and 34% think that the agreements have not changed anything. The proportion of those who believe that the Oslo Accords have harmed national interests continues to increase, given that 33.6% of Palestinians were of this opinion in March 2013. The majority of respondents (61.8%) oppose the Oslo Accords as such, while 24.3% support them. This indicates an increase in the negative attitude to the agreements, which in March 2013 was 48.3%.
Palestinians are critical of the latest Congress of Palestinian National Council (PNC, the PLO Parliament), which took place in early 2018. The majority of respondents (54%) believe that the Congress did not contribute to the achievement of Palestinian national unity. Thirty-nine point seven (39.7) percent believe that it has reduced the chances of this. Six point three (6.3) percent think on the contrary that the PNC contributed to Palestinian unity. As for the assessment of the impact of the PNC Congress on the situation as a whole, the majority of respondents (46.9%) do not see any result, while 28.6% believe that this event caused damage to them, and 7.9% on the contrary, see that the PNC Congress served the national interests.
The Palestinians are still pessimistic about the possibility of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. The majority of respondents (56.9%) doubt that the reconciliation agreement signed in October 2017, will be implemented, unlike 35.5% who think that it will remain on paper.
Respondents were asked whether they supported the continuation of military operations against Israeli targets as an appropriate response in the current political environment or opposed them, believing that this was detrimental to national interests. Thirty-three (33) percent of Palestinians support military operations against Israel, while 54% do not, because it harms national interests.
The key point of the study for the current leadership of the PNA is the respondents’ answer to the question of which of the Palestinians they trust most. This was an open-ended question to which respondents were not provided with options. The majority of Palestinians (49.4%) do not trust anyone. Despite a slight increase in the rating compared to previous surveys, Mahmoud Abbas (11.1%) has almost the same level of support as the Chairman of the Hamas Politburo Ismail Haniyeh (10%). And these are extremely disappointing results for both the leaders and the Palestinian project itself.
Specialists who conducted the survey did not try to make any generalisation. The optimistic conclusions about the chances of implementing the Palestinian statehood project from the data clearly do not ensue. And the attitude of the Israeli population to this is pessimistic, as evidenced by all public opinion polls conducted among the population of the Jewish state. Which could lead the co-sponsors of the peace process to reason if they could only take a sober look at the situation.