MESS Report / Fragile Palestinian unity threatened by Fatah split
President Abbas faces challenges from Fatah inner circle just as ruling movement seems ascendant once again.
Thousands of Palestinians filled the plaza in front of Ramallah's Muqata government complex to mark six years since Yasser Arafat's death yesterday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hailed efforts at reconciliation between his Fatah faction and its traditional rival Hamas, then in the next breath rallied the crowd against Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.
Arafat's nephew Nasser al-Qudwa, a Fatah Central Committee member, reiterated accusations that Israel had poisoned the iconic Palestinian leader, and the waves of applause he received seemed to indicate a rising tide of support for Fatah among Palestinians.
The crowds in Ramallah seem to augur well for efforts at Palestinian unity, but the past few weeks have seen a full-scale political war break out between Abbas and a number of high-level Fatah officials. Chief among the mutineers is Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah strongman and the movement's de facto leader in Gaza, who was absent from yesterday's commemoration.
Dahlan had apparently flown abroad just a day before Abbas' return from a trip to the Persian Gulf, thereby avoiding a potentially dicey encounter with the Palestinian president. The fallout between the two men appears largely due to recent news that Abbas has used Qudwa to undermine Dahlan and push him aside.
Abbas was recently informed that Dahlan has not only publicly denigrated the president himself, but his politically uninvolved sons Yasser and Tariq - a businessman and ad executive respectively.
It was merely a matter of time before Abbas took punitive measures. At first, the Palestinian Preventive Security Force - a special security force tasked with protecting senior Palestinian figures - abandoned Dahlan's Gaza home, leaving him only with his personal guards. Dahlan, who has a long record of public altercations with Hamas, is considered one of Fatah's most vulnerable figures in Gaza.
Early this week Yusef Issa Yakub, deputy head of the Preventative Security Force and a close Dahlan associate, was dismissed. Dahlan associates said the decision to prevent the strongman and Ahmed Qureia from using the Allenby Bridge from the West Bank into Jordan also came straight from Abbas' bureau.
The truth about Arafat
Qudwa, one of the keynote speakers at yesterday's memorial, vowed that Palestinians would continue to fight to reveal the truth about Arafat's supposed assassination. Qudwa, now 51, has served as the Palestine Liberation Organization's United Nations observer and in 2009 was elected to the Fatah Central Committee. Nowadays he is often mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas.
Unlike Dahlan, Qudwa has accumulated few enemies within his own movement. His bloodlines to Arafat win him admiration among Palestinians and his hands are seen as clean from the corruption that has tainted other Palestinian officials. He is also generally viewed as well-versed in international relations.
Last month, however, The Wall Street Journal published an article quoting a high-level Fatah official describing growing resentment over Abbas' leadership within the organization.
Frustration with Abbas' handling of negotiations with Israel could lead to his ouster as leader of both the PA and PLO, the official said, adding that a new Fatah "bloc" was emerging that views Qudwa as the heir apparent to the current president.
The anti-Abbas faction, he said, includes not only Dahlan but Jibril Rajoub, the former West Bank head of the Preventative Security Force and a Fatah Central Committee member, and Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned militant who enjoys widespread support among the Palestinian public.
A recent Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre poll found Abbas' support among that public in both the West Bank and Gaza to be relatively stable. He remains the most popular Palestinian figure, the survey found, with 52 percent of respondents saying they believe Abbas is in full control or somewhat in control of events in Palestinian domestic life.
Fatah, moreover, remains popular, with 35.3 percent claiming support of the movement against just 13.3 for Hamas.
Sixty-two percent of Palestinians support renewing talks with Israel only in the presence of a full settlement building freeze, according to the survey.