Saturday, 27 December 2014

Palestinian problems

    Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) seems to be riding high.  Over the past few months he has witnessed declarations of support for a Palestinian state in the parliaments of country after country:  Ireland, Britain, Spain, France, Sweden – and most recently the EU parliament.

        In addition the PA seems determined to force a vote in the UN Security Council, on a draft resolution submitted by Jordan, requiring Israel to have withdrawn to the pre-1967 lines and a Palestinian state to have been established by the end of 2017. The Security Council consists of fifteen members – five permanent, with the power of veto, and ten non-permanent.  The PA requires nine votes for their resolution to be adopted, but this could occur only if it is not vetoed by one or more of the five permanent members.

        One of the permanent members, France, is preparing its own alternative resolution, and another – the US – is not in favor of by-passing a negotiated settlement.  The wording of the resolution very carefully attempts to by-pass US objections by simply affirming  “the urgent need to attain” a two-state solution, and by including “mutually agreed, limited, equivalent land swaps” plus a third-party security presence.  Nevertheless, the chances of the PA draft resolution being adopted are uncertain, but even if it fails the mere act of bringing it before the Security Council will be surely be hailed by the PA as a diplomatic coup.

        So is Abbas riding the crest of a wave?  Appearances can be deceptive.  Two major problems face the PA. First, Palestine is a house divided against itself, with the PA the weaker party; and secondly, because of it, Abbas dare not currently resubmit himself or the PA to the democratic process, for the current polls indicate political defeat. In short, he lacks democratic legitimacy. He would be vehemently and vociferously challenged from within the Palestinian camp if he plunged wholeheartedly into the peace process. To evade the possibility of a humiliating deposition, or – with the fate of Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat in mind – worse, he would much prefer to see some sort of solution forced on Israel by the weight of world opinion.

Open hostility between Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, and the PA has long been evident. In May 2014, as Abbas was announcing his new “government of national unity”, including so-called technocrats from Hamas, Israeli security forces uncovered an elaborate and well-funded Hamas plot aimed at overthrowing the PA in the West Bank. In August Shin Bet arrested 93 Hamas activists accused of setting up terror cells in 46 Palestinian towns and villages. The intention was to carry out mass attacks on Israeli targets and, under cover of this “third intifada”, to seize rule in Ramallah from Abbas and the PA. The operation would have been led by the "Mohammed Deif of the West Bank" – in other words, Hamas operations officer Saleh al-Arouri, who currently operates out of Turkey.

The inherent incompatability between the aims of Hamas and Fatah was apparent immediately after the end of the conflict in Gaza.  It became clear, even before the Egypt-sponsored talks between Israel and the Palestinians had started, that while Hamas was seeking to restore its status in Gaza – and show some positive achievements from the conflict – Fatah was intent on re-establishing a strong foothold for the PA in the strip.
These tensions, far from being resolved, have been exacerbated since Hamas nominally handed over to the PA responsibility for Gaza reconstruction.  This astute move means that Hamas is able to wash its hands of responsibility for the still unreconstructed state of Gaza.  At the October Cairo conference, donors pledged $5.4 billion to help rebuild Gaza, but barely 2% of the money has been transferred.  Transfer of the donations depends on the reconciliation government actually functioning in Gaza, for the donors want to be sure that the money reaches a leadership it can trust. Open hostility between Hamas and Fatah means that that the reconciliation government is virtually toothless in Gaza.

Abbas’s problems do not end with the PA’s stand-off with Hamas, for Fatah itself is split between his supporters and those of his main political opponent, Mohammed Dahlan – a native of Gaza, who was ousted from the PA by Abbas, and against whom a court in Ramallah is preparing an indictment on charges of corruption. Last week the PA decided to remove dozens of Fatah members affiliated with Dahlan’s faction from the Palestinian security forces in Gaza.  As news of the firings spread, anti-Abbas slogans appeared in Gaza and, with the approval of Hamas, Dahlan supporters demonstrated against Abbas in the center of Gaza.

        Nor is Dahlan his only bête noir. There is also jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder for the deaths of four Israelis and a Greek monk, as well as attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and membership of a terrorist organisation. From his prison cell Barghouti took issue with the text of the PA draft resolution to the UN Security Council, accused the PA leadership of making unjustified concessions on Palestinian rights, and called on the PA leadership to undertake an immediate and comprehensive revision.

        He criticized the PA’s readiness to conduct land swaps with Israel, claiming Israel would exploit the concept to legalize settlements.  He opposed the document’s wording on Jerusalem.  The PA text says that the city should be the capital of two states; Barghouti stressed that any resolution should emphasize that east Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state. Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip were other issues he believed should be included in a revised text.

        Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also criticized the draft resolution and called on the PA leadership to withdraw it from the Security Council.

        In the light of all this internal Palestinian opposition, it is not perhaps surprising that rumours are making the round to the effect that the PA have recently sent the US secret messages indicating that they would not object to a veto.

        In short, in presenting his draft resolution to the Security Council Abbas may appear to the world in general to have pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke.  From the propaganda point of view, a US veto would be irrelevant, or even positively advantageous.  Within the hopelessly divided Palestinian camp, however, it has already caused even more friction, animosity and disunity than already existed, and can only generate more.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 December 2014:

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