In July 2003, the then Palestinian Authority Chairman, Yasser Arafat, described Mahmoud Abbas as a “traitor” who “betrayed the interests of the Palestinian People.” Arafat loathed Abbas to the very end. This particular outburst was made during a meeting with United Nations envoy Terje Larsen. The meeting took place a few months after Arafat was coerced by the US, Israel and other Western powers to appoint Abbas as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.
Historically, Abbas has been the least popular among Fatah leaders; the likes of Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad and Arafat himself. These popular leaders were mostly assassinated, sidelined or died under mysterious circumstances. Arafat is widely believed to have been poisoned by Israel with the help of Palestinians, and Abbas has alleged recently that he knows who killed him.
Yet, despite his unpopularity, Abbas has remained in one top position or another. The power struggle between him and Arafat which culminated in 2003, until Arafat’s death in November 2004, hardly helped Abbas’s insipid reputation among Palestinians.
At times, it seemed that the less popular Abbas became, the greater his powers grew. Now, he has just been re-elected as the head of his political party, Fatah, during its seventh congress held in Ramallah on 29 November. At 81, he is the leader of Fatah, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and President of the Palestinian Authority.
However, his long, drawn-out speech of nearly three hours on 30 November contained nothing new; just rehashed slogans and subtle messages to the US and Israel that his “revolution” shall remain subdued and non-violent. Considering this critical period in Palestine’s history, Abbas’s impractical rhetoric represents the depth of the crisis among Palestine’s political elites. The numerous rounds of applause that his tedious, unimaginative speech received from the nearly 1,400 supporters who attended the conference is a reflection of the deep-seated political tribalism that now controls Fatah, the dominant PLO party and, arguably, the party that sparked the modern Palestinian revolution.
However, today’s party is a far cry from its original self. Fatah’s founders were young, vibrant, educated rebels. Their primary literature from 1959 spoke of their early influences, particularly the guerrilla war of Algeria’s resistance against French colonialism.
“The guerrilla war in Algeria had a profound influence on us,” wrote Abu Iyad. “We were impressed by the Algerian nationalists’ ability to form a solid front, wage war against an army a thousand times superior to their own, obtain many forms of aid from various Arab governments and, at the same time, avoid becoming dependent on any of them.”
Certainly, some circumstances have changed, inevitably so, but many aspects of the conflict have remained the same, including Israel’s territorial war and unceasing colonial expansion, backed by the United States’ unhinged imperialism.
Yet, Fatah has changed to the point that its founders would no longer recognise the current political structure as the entity that they created. The movement is now more keenly interested in consolidating the power of Abbas’s allies than fighting Israel; top members are conspiring against each other, buying allegiances and ensuring that the massive financial perks which resulted from Abbas’s Oslo accords remain intact, even after the old leader retires or dies.
Mohammed Dahlan’s political clan was, of course, excluded from the conference. In fact, the reason the conference was held after all these years (seven years separate it from the previous one) was partly to ensure that the new Fatah hierarchy is set up in such a way that it will prevent Dahlan’s allies from staging a comeback.
The sad truth is that, regardless of who wins in the current power struggle, Fatah’s fall is inexorable. Both Abbas and Dahlan are perceived as moderates by Israel, supported by the US and extremely unpopular among most Palestinians.
According to a poll conducted in September 2015, the majority of Palestinians — 65 per cent — want Abbas to resign. The same poll indicated that Dahlan was nowhere near popular (only six per cent supported him) while Abbas’s allies, Saeb Erekat and former prime minister Salam Fayyad, received four per cent and three per cent of the vote respectively. Indeed, there is a chasm between Palestinians and those who claim to represent them, and that rift is growing exponentially.
The Fatah conference’s political theatre last week seemed far removed from this reality. After Abbas — who was only elected to lead the Palestinian Authority once in 2005 for a period of four years — had purged all of his opponents, he sought a new mandate from his supporters. Predictably, “everyone voted yes,” a spokesman for Fatah, Mahmoud Abu Al-Hija, told reporters.
When “everyone” in Fatah’s top political circle votes for Abbas, while the majority of Palestinians reject him, it is reasonable to conclude that Fatah is neither a fair representation of the Palestinian people, nor remotely close to the pulse of the Palestinian street. Even if one is to ignore the “yes-men” of Fatah, one cannot ignore the fact that the current fight among the Palestinian elites is almost entirely detached from the struggle against Israel.
Palestinians are victims of daily violence; Jewish settlements are occupying Palestinian hills and are forever expanding; Israeli soldiers roam occupied Palestinian land; and Abbas himself is not allowed free movement without prior “security coordination” with the Israeli army.
Moreover, Palestinians are divided among factions, regions and clans; political favouritism, financial corruption and outright treason are eating the Palestinian body politic like an incurable cancer. Talk of “unity”, “reconciliation” and “state building” is just that — talk — while Palestinians suffer their bitter existence behind checkpoints and under the boots of soldiers and the quiet — but maddening — humming of military drones.
Despite this, the Fatah elites still applauded Abbas nearly 300 times during his three hour speech. What were they applauding, exactly? What has been achieved? What vision did he put forth to end the Israeli occupation?
Too much Palestinian land has been lost between Fatah’s sixth congress in 2009 and last month’s seventh congress. That is not an achievement worthy of such acclaim, but a cause for alarm.
The sad truth is that no self-respecting Palestinian should be applauding empty rhetoric; instead, the respected Fatah members should rethink this destructive course altogether, and do so as a matter of urgency.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.