Shock and paralysis have taken hold of the political world in the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, in light of the continued Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip and the enormous concern over the fate of 1.8 million people living in the small enclave. Condemnations by spokesmen for the PLO and the PA, calls to donate blood to Gaza and the establishment of a government emergency fund are “expressions of solidarity” – as if the residents of the Gaza Strip are a different people. These are not the steps of a leadership whose people are in mortal danger.
People in Gaza and the West Bank are shocked that senior leaders in the PLO and the PA – first and foremost PA President Mahmoud Abbas, or at least those closest to him – did not take the first obvious step of going to the Gaza Strip when the bloody conflict first broke out. This failure, critics say, has helped turn the conflict, as far as the world is concerned, into a face-off between Hamas and Israel, and not part of the policy of occupation and oppression of the entire Palestinian people.
On the organizational level, the bloody conflict required an immediate meeting of the temporary unified leadership (consisting of members of the PLO executive committee and heads of the organizations that are not members of the PLO, first among them Hamas and Islamic Jihad). The forming of this body was agreed on as far back as the reconciliation accord in Cairo in 2005. In fact, the united leadership should have met right after the Shati agreement (the April accord regarding the establishment of a reconciliation government headed by Rami Hamdallah).
The fact that it did not meet is a failure or evidence that Abbas’ heart was not in the national consensus government to begin with. Abbas ascribes great importance to negotiations with Israel and his connections with the United States, while it is becoming clearer to ever-widening circles in the PLO and Fatah that the obligation to build a unified leadership trumps everything else.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s cease-fire conditions sound very logical and moderate to Palestinians, among them members of the PLO’s factions, including Fatah. The secretary of the PLO executive committee, Yasser Abed Rabbo, has said as much. Hamas’ demand to lift the siege highlights the lack of interest the PLO and Fatah leadership have in raising the struggle over the closure and segregation of the Gaza Strip. Abbas’ involvement in the failed Egyptian cease-fire initiative based on “quiet for quiet” is now considered a dangerous missed opportunity, whose costly price was more human lives. Another high price was paid in presenting the Palestinian president as a “mediator” instead of the leader of a people, thus deepening the internal rift. Abbas’ talks over the past few days with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders come too late and do not ameliorate the bitter impression.
On the other hand, members of the PLO do not want a full-on confrontation with Egypt or to seem like they are getting involved in its internal affairs – that is, taking a stand on the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. Traditionally, the PLO’s factions have been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood as a supranational political body that uses religion. Fatah, in particular, claimed for years that Hamas’ ideology and its politics of military confrontation are not motivated by a national agenda, but rather by that of the Brotherhood.
The small left wing eschews the kind of society to which Hamas aspires. But in recent weeks, it has become clear that Hamas has been able to present a challenge to Israel greater than any Israel has ever faced from a Palestinian organization – and, in the opinion of the Palestinian public, for justifiable reasons. This has also impressed those who despise Hamas’ political-religious path, as well as those who are not blinded by worship of the armed struggle.
The failures in the conduct of the PLO factions, including Fatah – particularly since the outbreak of this round of bloodshed – are not a local and temporary issue. Rather, they show ongoing failures, some of which are connected to the character of Abbas’ rule. In recent years he has managed to minimize any democratic process of consultation and joint decision making in Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. The secular political factions, among them Fatah, have been sidelined as irrelevant, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad are increasingly regarded as leading the struggle against the occupation in the name of the Palestinian people. According to key people in the political factions, there must be a real change in the quality, course of action and discourse of the PLO. Otherwise a vacuum will be created that, at best, will be filled by nationalist Islamic groups, and at worst will invite social, political and security chaos.