Analysis

Palestinian President Abbas Is Not Israel's Partner - or Cairo's

The rivalry between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and ex-Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan is reverberating in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp, and farther afield.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, flashes the V-sign as then-Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan looks on in the West Bank town of Ramallah, in 2006.
Kevin Frayer/AP

The trajectory of machine-gun bullets and RPGs fired in a Palestinian refugee camp in the coastal Lebanese city of Sidon can be traced back to Ramallah, Gaza and Cairo. Tensions have been high in Ein el-Hilweh for the past few weeks: Armed clashes last Saturday resulted in the death of at least one person; shops and homes were destroyed and transportation services in the camp of 80,000 ground to a halt.

The immediate cause of the violent flare-up is unclear. Some reports say it began with a quarrel between two women that evolved into a confrontation between groups of men. But the agglomeration of events that preceded this latest eruption indicates that the rivalries are indeed widespread.

There are 20 different Palestinian factions operating in the camp, the most important being affiliated with Fatah, Hamas and the National and Islamic Forces group. Security in the camp is overseen by a joint committee of all the factions, under the command of Munir Al-Maqdah, deputy commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces in Lebanon, which is led by Subhi Abu Arab.

Al-Maqdah is loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and receives $250,000 per month to underwrite the activities of Fatah elements in the council of national security forces. In early January, however, the PA decided to suspend this funding in the wake of criticism of Al-Maqdah’s lack of efficiency – a move that led him to announce Fatah’s withdrawal from the joint security committee.

Abbas’ decision to freeze the aid is apparently due to Al-Maqdah’s failure to stifle the activity of supporters of former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’ bitter rival, in the refugee camp. The conflict between Dahlan and Abbas is nothing new, and is escalating into a war of succession which involves Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Last September, for example, these four countries tried to propose a formula for reconciliation that would allow Dahlan to return to political activity within Fatah, from which Abbas expelled him in June 2011 following Dahlan’s attempts to push him out. Abbas rejected the initiative, infuriating Egypt, which seeks to bolster Dahlan’s standing with the aim of influencing, through him, what happens in the territories occupied by Israel, in the event that Abbas steps down as head of the PA. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are also turning a cold shoulder to Abbas, and his visits to these countries have become few and far between.

The Egyptian chill reached a peak last week, when, in a rare move, senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub was denied entry to Egypt, where he’d been officially invited to attend a conference on terrorism and social development in Sharm el Sheikh. Rajoub was not even permitted to leave the airport and was forced to fly back to Jordan on the plane that brought him to Egypt.

This is the first time that Egypt has barred a visit by a Palestinian official from Fatah, and it probably won’t be the last – as long as Abbas remains recalcitrant.

For its part, the PA decided not to respond publicly to this affront, which came just days after senior PA figure Saeb Erekat returned from a visit to Cairo saying that relations with Egypt were still strong.

Before the Rajoub incident, Abbas visited Lebanon to coordinate ways to increase security in the refugee camps and to improve the situation of the Palestinian refugees in general. But that visit led to a new confrontation with Dahlan and his supporters, who were quick to accuse Abbas of finding plenty of time to meet with singer Ahlam and the stars of the "Arab Idol" singing competition, but no time to actually visit the refugee camps.

The day before Abbas departed Lebanon, Dahlan’s wife Jalila arrived to distribute care packages at the Ein el-Hilweh camp. Abbas supporters hurled rocks at her convoy. The situation degenerated from there into more violence until Hamas, of all groups, managed to secure a cease-fire.

Abbas ascribes this incident to Egypt’s backing of Dahlan, and is certain that the closer ties between Hamas and Cairo are not just due to their agreement to fight the extremist Salafi movements in the Gaza Strip and to sever the organization’s ties with the Islamic State affiliate in Sinai, but also to Hamas’ commitment to support Dahlan as Abbas' successor – although Hamas has not explicitly stated it would do so.

In this regard, Egypt agrees with Israel, which also does not view Abbas as a partner. However, while official Israel specifically declares that Abbas is not a partner for a peace process, Egypt does not see Abbas as a partner for realizing its own political aspirations in Palestine.

In a situation in which Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don't even talk at all – and with the Trump administration not showing any readiness to get involved in the Middle East – Egypt wants to at least reap some benefit in Gaza, where Cairo wields influence due to its ability to strengthen or weaken Hamas through its control of the Rafah crossing and how many people it allows to pass through there.

While Cairo has to coordinate with Jerusalem in terms of just how much it turns up the heat on Hamas, this is secondary to the military cooperation between the two countries. Israel’s responses to recent rocket fire from Gaza may appear harsh and disproportionate, but they are still far from what would fulfill Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s vow to make Hamas cry uncle.