Even a short visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is based, is enough to gain the impression that the battle for succession to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as head of the Fatah movement is underway. It's not necessarily as much a contest among individuals as it is between generations.
The younger generation wants change and greater opportunity while the old-timers want to maintain their own standing. One of the prominent names in the contest is the Palestinian Authority's 54-year-old chief of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, Majid Faraj, who holds a rank equivalent to major general, and was appointed to his post by Abbas in 2009. He is considered close to Abbas and was been a member of the Palestinian delegations that have negotiated with Israel. He rarely grants interviews, however, making his political plans difficult to discern.
He did grant an interview earlier this month, however, to the U.S.-based Defense News website. Faraj said that Palestinian Authority security forces have foiled 200 attacks against Israelis since the beginning of the recent wave of violence, adding that the PA's security coordination with Israel will continue. The PA's security and intelligence forces have carried out more than 100 arrests of Palestinians in the West Bank, he said, and have confiscated large quantities of weapons.
The security cooperation, he explained, is preventing chaos and the emergence of extremists who could endanger the security of all of the countries of the region, including Israel. In his interview, Faraj warned of disillusionment on the part of the post-Oslo generation, those who have grown up since the Palestinian Authority was established in the mid-1990s through the Oslo Accords.
“We thought these people would have a different mentality – a mentality of peace,” he told Defense News. "The people in the West Bank, they’ve given us many years for our political project. They gave us the time to negotiate one state, one weapon," a reference to a single Palestinian military force. "They supported us. But in this time, we in the security establishment witnessed three wars in Gaza, the continuation of Israeli crimes in the West Bank and almost daily Israeli invasions. There’s no hope for a political horizon ... We have no state, but rather a state of [Jewish] settlers,” Faraj said. One of Faraj's three sons, Mohammed, was wounded in clashes near the West Bank settlement of Beit El in October, it should be noted.
The intelligence chief said he believed that most Palestinians oppose Islamic groups such as ISIS and the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, which are trying to establish a presence in the West Bank in territory under the administration of the Palestinian Authority.
Following his interview with Defense News, Faraj was the subject of verbal attacks on the grassroots level among Palestinians, primarily for his support for security coordination with Israel. He did not respond, but in the Deheisheh refugee camp, the camp in the Bethlehem area where he grew up, a statement of support for the intelligence chief was issued, claiming that the campaign against Faraj was being directed by Israel.
Faraj's family fled to the camp prior to his birth during the Israeli War of Independence from the village of Ras Abu Amar in the area where Tzur Hadassah is located today, west of Jerusalem. He studied in the camp at a school sponsored by UNRWA, the United Nations Refugee Works Organization. His close friend Eyad Hamad told Haaretz that Faraj's mother died when he was 13 and he then filled a parental role in the family as the oldest of nine children. The intelligence chief, Hamad said, still maintains contact with friends in the refugee camp and visits there nearly on a weekly basis.
Faraj joined the Fatah movement of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, at a young age, Hamad said, and is considered one of the founders of the youth movement in the refugee camp. Like many in the Palestinian leadership, he also served time in Israeli prison years ago, for his membership in Fatah and his participation in demonstrations.
Faraj was 15 at the time, and according to Abdallah Za'ari of Deheisheh, it buttressed his standing during the first intifada in the late 1980s. All told, Faraj spend more than six years in Israeli prison. Hamad said Faraj was a prominent leader of the prisoners at the time. He used his time in jail to complete a Bachelor's degree in management from the Al-Quds Open University, which was founded in Amman and now has branches throughout the West Bank. When the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, Faraj joined the PA's preventative security force, working under Jibril Rajoub.
When the second intifada broke out in 2000, Faraj was in charge of the Bethlehem district for the preventative security service. When a curfew was imposed on the city in April 2002, his father left home to buy food and was fatally shot. Israeli soldiers suspected that he was carrying explosives.
In 2006, with changes in the Palestinian Authority following the death of Arafat and Abbas' assumption of the presidency, Faraj was promoted to the head of military intelligence in the West Bank as efforts were made to bring an end to the intifada. Sources in Israel said Faraj was among those who brought about an improvement in the security situation at the time. Although at the grass-roots level, Palestinians criticized the closer security cooperation with Israel, there were heightened expectations of progress on the diplomatic front then under the government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
In 2006, Faraj was unsuccessful in a bid for a seat in the Palestinian parliament, but three years later was appointed to his current position as head of the intelligence service. In 2012, he was a member of the delegation that met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. He was also involved in mediating the release of two Swedish women who were held by the Nusra Front in Syria.
Because Faraj doesn't normally grant interviews, it is difficult to know if he views himself as a successor to President Abbas. Za'ari, of Deheisheh, who is affiliated with Fatah, said he believes that in his current position, Faraj is closer to the situation on the ground rather than being isolated from it. For his part, Mohammed Lacham, a member of the Palestinian parliament, commented that Faraj has not forgotten where he came from. When it comes to security cooperation, Lacham said Faraj "remains committed to his principles and ultimately everyone understands that the entire constellation of relations with Israel is built on coordination," he added.
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