A few years after Arafat assumed the leadership of the Palestinian national movement he tried to tempt the West to offer him something in return for what he called peace. Many people still remember him with his white sweater, in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, saying: “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
As one Fatah former leader and Arafat companion once told me, Arafat and his group always thought that liberation should happen within their lifetime and that they should enjoy its fruits. They were convinced from the early stages that they cannot beat the Zionists with all the American and Western support behind them. They were ready from the beginning for something other than complete liberation, unlike most Palestinians. It was not a surprise to my friend that Arafat ended up trapped with a lousy agreement, the Oslo Accords, engineered secretively by Mahmoud Abbas, his successor.
Almost all Palestinian factions, including those who are members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), rejected it and many Fatah and Palestinian National Council (PNC) members resigned in protest against the agreement, including Mahmoud Darwish, Ibrahim Abu Lughod and Edward Said, who accused Arafat of treason.
The attempts of Fatah to lead the Palestinian national movement led eventually to the complete monopoly of the Palestinian national decision. All other factions who used to get their financial support and annual budget from the PLO had to concede to Arafat’s decisions even if they opposed them, and for those who refused to do so Arafat used to smear, intimidate and in many cases use brutal force against them, including assassination if necessary.
Although the PLO’s institutions and other Palestinian bodies had elections, most of the time they were decorative. Most of the Palestinian leadership, including Arafat, did not believe in leadership succession and democratic transition. Opposition was never allowed unless it was superficial and could beautify the face of the PLO and give legitimacy to the “historical leadership”, as Arafat and his group used to be called by their supporters.
In the eighties, after Hamas and Islamic Jihad (IJ) became serious contenders, Fatah tried to combat them. In the beginning Arafat refused to recognise that these movements ever existed. Then he spread a rumour, which many still believe in, that these movements were the creation of Israel to divide the national Palestinian decision. Fatah and its members used to assault members of Hamas and IJ, in universities, Israeli detention camps, mosques and wherever they could.
In 1993 the Oslo Accords were signed and from that moment on a deep rift was created between the Palestinian people, who were once always united behind resistance. Arafat believed, and made many Palestinians believe, that through diplomacy Palestinians could have their independent state. This sweet dream was a mere illusion, which Arafat eventually realised before his mysterious death.
The “peace process” – which was supposed to yield according to Oslo a Palestinian state within six years – continued for about two decades and managed only to consolidate Israeli control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Arafat eventually realised that the United States and Israel had turned him into a policeman whose duty it is to keep his own people calm and accept the gradual annexation of land and the looting of resources.
By the beginning of the second intifada, which was triggered by Ariel Sharon’s intrusion into Al-Aqsa Mosque, Arafat started local resistance groups in secret and released many Hamas leaders and members from his prisons. Sharon and George W. Bush decided that it was time to get rid of him and the Israeli Army destroyed almost all the infrastructure Arafat managed to build with European aid in the West Bank, surrounded his headquarters in Ramallah, and imposed Mahmoud Abbas on him as a prime minister.
It was by then very clear that the Americans and the Israelis despised Arafat and favoured Abbas. Arafat’s health gradually and mysteriously deteriorated, he finally died and Abbas took over. Abbas did not believe in pressurising Israel using armed resistance, nor with peaceful resistance, as is evident in the way he runs the areas under his jurisdiction. He seems to believe that the only way to implement his plans of having a state is to convince the Americans and reassure the Israelis, which seems a very naïve approach.
Yet there were some serious obstacles to overcome. First was the armed Fatah groups Arafat founded and financed, which Abbas could liquidate quickly. The second is groups like Hamas, which Arafat, with all his might, could not contain. Abbas chose a new tactic; elections. Abbas managed to convince Hamas’ leadership to take part in the general elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, inaccurately estimating that it would not get more than 30 per cent of the seats of the Legislative Council, and he would emerge victorious and impose his views on Hamas through democracy.
Abbas found no other way except to recognise the results of the elections but worked to undermine the work of the government which was formed by Hamas, and boycotted by most of the other Palestinian factions due to Abbas’ pressure. Through Fatah armed groups and PA security agencies, Abbas started with the help of people like Mohmmed Dahlan – who was then the head of the Preventive Security Force in Gaza – an armed revolt. Abbas made the work of the government almost impossible.
Local Hamas leaders got fed up of the situation and with their smaller and less equipped forces, kicked Dahlan and the armed leaders of Fatah out of the Gaza Strip, and Abbas in return cracked down on Hamas in the West Bank. From that time on Abbas and his group monopolised Palestinian representation under the pretext that Hamas carried out a coup in Gaza and unless it surrenders and hands over everything to Abbas there will be no reconciliation, which gave Abbas all the liberty he wanted to go on his way undisputed.
Yes, Abbas ruled undisputed, but it is very clear that he failed. Abbas worked for three decades to make the Oslo Accords a reality but ended up cursing his partners, the Americans and the Israelis, in a vulgar way, for he has nothing else he could do. Abbas lacks the courage to declare that he led the Palestinian people into a disaster, apologise and give way to a new leadership. One day, most probably soon, Abbas like Arafat will pass away, and leave his people face to face with his disastrous heritage.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.