Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (left) recently decided to slash by 30% the salaries of PA employees in Gaza. Abbas suspects that these employees, who are affiliated with his Fatah faction, have switched their loyalty to his arch-rival, Mohamed Dahlan (right). (Image sources: U.S. State Dept., M. Dahlan Office)
- The joke among Palestinians is that were it not for Israel is sitting smack in the middle, the two warring Palestinian states [the West Bank and the Gaza Strip] would be dispatching rockets and suicide bombers at each other.
- Abbas is well aware that the Palestinian house is on fire. Instead of working to extinguish the blaze, however, Abbas spends his time spreading the lie that peace in our time is possible, if only Israel would succumb to his demands.
- The story of Gaza — which went straight to Hamas after Israel handed it to Abbas — is not a tale Abbas likes to tell. The same scenario is likely to be repeated in the West Bank if Israel makes a similar move.
This week, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Donald Trump will sit down together to talk. This is the first such meeting since the US presidential election, and it comes at a time when the Palestinian scene is characterized by mounting internal tensions, fighting and divisiveness. The disarray among the Palestinians, where everyone seems to be fighting everyone else, casts serious doubt on Abbas’s ability to lead the Palestinians towards a better future. The chaos also raises the question whether Abbas has the authority to speak on behalf of a majority of Palestinians, let alone sign a peace agreement with Israel that would be acceptable to enough of his people.
Abbas, however, seems rather oblivious to the state of bedlam among the Palestinians, and appears determined to forge ahead despite the radical instability he is facing.
He is travelling to Washington to tell Trump that he and his PA leadership seek a “just and comprehensive” peace with Israel through the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
In the meeting, Abbas is likely to repeat his long-standing charges that Israel continues to “sabotage” any prospect for peace with the Palestinians.
Abbas is not likely to mention the mayhem that the PA leadership is facing at home. Nor is the fact that the Palestinians are as far as ever from achieving their goal of statehood likely to be a preeminent subject. Why bother discussing inconvenient truths, such as the deep divisions among the Palestinians and failure to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, when you can point the finger of blame at Israel?
Abbas’s trip to Washington coincides with a peak of tension between his PA and Hamas, the Islamic movement that rules the Gaza Strip. The rivalry between Hamas and Abbas’s PA, which climaxed in 2007 when the Islamic movement violently took over the Gaza Strip from Abbas loyalists, has created a reality where the Palestinians are divided, physically, into two separate entities.
Since 2007, the reality on the ground is that the Palestinians already have two small states: one in the Gaza Strip and another in the West Bank. These two states have since been at war with each other. The joke among Palestinians is that were it not for Israel is sitting smack in the middle, the two warring Palestinian states would be dispatching rockets and suicide bombers at each other.
This war, which is currently a war of venomous words between the PA and Hamas, has left many Palestinians wondering whether their leaders will ever be able to move beyond their personal animosities and bring the people closer to achieving statehood. Many attempts by Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Yemen, to resolve the dispute between Hamas and the PA have failed. Neither side appears to be willing to make any concessions that would pave the way for national reconciliation in the Palestinian arena.
For the past several weeks, thousands of Palestinians have taken to Gaza’s streets to denounce Abbas as a traitor and Zionist agent. It is worth noting that the protesters are not only supporters of Hamas, but also include many disgruntled PA employees who are protesting Abbas’s decision to slash their salaries by 30%.
Abbas suspects that these employees, who are affiliated with his Fatah faction, have switched their loyalty to his arch-rival, Mohamed Dahlan, the ousted Fatah leader who has been publicly calling for the removal of Abbas from power.
Hardly a day passes in the Gaza Strip that demonstrators do not burn photos of Abbas and his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah (who is also based in the West Bank).
Yet, it is not only money that is bringing the Palestinian population to the streets. Hamas and many Palestinians hold Abbas responsible for the ongoing electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip, which has left tens of thousands of families without power for up to 20 hours a day.
Last week Abbas’s government told Israel that it will stop paying for electricity that Israel supplies to Gaza. Palestinians say Abbas is planning more punitive measures against the Strip in the near future. His goal is to drive desperate Palestinians there to revolt against Hamas. In the meantime, however, it seems that Abbas’s measures are boomeranging, and Gazans are, for now, hurling their fury at him and the PA government.
Abbas’s plate is quite full in the Gaza Strip. Alongside Hamas, he has thousands of Dahlan loyalists to deal with. Then there are several other Palestinian groups, such as Islamic Jihad, that have long been challenging Abbas and his autocratic rule. Recently, the leaders of these groups stepped up their harsh criticism of Abbas, with some calling for his “execution” in a public square.
“Why does Abbas take the donors’ money that is intended for the Gaza Strip? asked Marwan Abu Ras, a senior Hamas official. In the view of Abu Ras, Abbas has reached the “highest degrees of treason” and must face a popular and legal trial. “He must be hanged in the public square in front of his people because he is the biggest traitor the Palestinian cause has ever had,” the Hamas official declared.
Another top Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, said that Abbas has long lost his legitimacy and was no longer the president of the Palestinians. He accused Abbas and his senior aides of laying their hands on Arab and Western funds and using them for their personal interests. “Abbas is committing crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip,” Zahar charged. “Abbas cut off the electricity to the Gaza Strip and salaries to the (PA) employees. He is involved in a conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian cause.”
How Abbas would fare if he ever returned to Gaza is anyone’s guess. Since 2007, Abbas has not been able to even go back to his private house in Gaza. In light of Hamas’s daily threats to kill him, it is unlikely that the 82-year-old Abbas will ever see the Gaza Strip from the inside again.
Abbas’s senior aides, meanwhile, are not sitting silent in the face of the Hamas threats. One of his top advisors, Mahmoud Habbash, last week called on Palestinians to revolt against Hamas. Habbash also stated that it would be fine to destroy and burn the Gaza Strip in order to get rid of Hamas.
The threats against Abbas are coming not only from Hamas, but also from Dahlan and other senior Fatah officials in the Gaza Strip, who think of themselves as sacrificial victims in the war between Abbas and Hamas. The Gaza Strip, then, hosts not only a Fatah-Hamas war, but also a war within Fatah. And tensions between all these parties are only headed toward escalation.
Adding to his problems stemming from the Gaza Strip, Abbas has his hands full inside PA-controlled territories in the West Bank. A hunger strike organized by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is seen as directed not only against Israel, but above all against Abbas and the PA leadership. Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison for his role in terrorist attacks, has been imprisoned for 15 years. He and his fellow inmates are convinced that Abbas is not interested in their release, which accounts for why he is not doing much to help their cause. Abbas, it is said, fears Barghouti’s popularity, and prefers him in Israeli prison over having him at large.
The hunger strike has triggered a wave of protests in the West Bank not only against Israel, but also against Abbas and his PA government. Abbas is also facing enmity for cracking down on public freedoms, lack of economic reforms and his continued security coordination with Israel.
Is it any surprise, then, that Abbas prefers to spend his time outside Ramallah and the PA-controlled territories? He rarely visits Jenin, Hebron or Nablus, but Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states are a second home to him.
Abbas is well aware that the Palestinian house is on fire. Instead of working to extinguish the blaze, however, Abbas spends his time spreading the lie that peace in our time is possible, if only Israel would succumb to his demands.
The story of Gaza — which went straight to Hamas after Israel handed it to Abbas — is not a tale Abbas likes to tell. The same scenario is likely to be repeated in the West Bank if Israel makes a similar move. It remains to be seen whether Trump and the new administration are aware of the extreme anarchy reining among the Palestinians, and act accordingly. Will the world see past Abbas’s lies this time?
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.