Opinion |

From Abbas to Hamas, Palestinian Leaders Have No Strategy Against Annexation

A fumbling, factional, incoherent Palestinian response to Israel’s looming move on the West Bank would be a dream for annexationists. And that’s exactly what’s happening

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads the Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 5, 2020
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads the Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 5, 2020Credit: AFP
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

The serious dangers of Israel’s lurking annexation cannot be overemphasized. Once officially implemented, it would be nearly impossible for any future Israeli government to walk it back or undo the ensuing damage.

Annexation would leave Palestinians with an unlivable, shakshuka-like non-state, irrevocably and perhaps fatally compromise the Palestinian peace camp, terminally alienate two-states advocates, and lead to long-term radicalization among impoverished Palestinians with no political horizon or improvement in living conditions in sight.

And yet Palestinian leaders have little planned to prevent the move, or retaliate against it. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas vowed last month to terminate all agreements with Israel on the eve of annexation, and further announced Tuesday that the PA is absolved from – rather than abrogates – all such agreements, including security coordination.

Azzam Al-Ahmad, a senior a member of Fatah's Central Committee, said Wednesday that Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh will meet with the heads of the Palestinian security forces over the next 48 hours to carefully study the security relationship with Israel.

However, such threats now ring hollow on the ears of Palestinians let alone Israelis. Everyone questions the seriousness of Abbas’ intentions and declarations when he’s made the exact same threats since 2016 without following it with any notable measures on the ground.

Meanwhile, the guiding pretext for Hamas’ lack of strategy is sparing Gaza another destructive war. Hamas’ plan against annexation has been to throw shade on the PA, bring its inaction into the spotlight and frame it as responsible for whatever comes next.

Senior Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzook has recently proposed that if annexation proceeds, the PLO should terminate all agreements with Israel, particularly security coordination, and the Palestinian leadership should move abroad to manage the conflict from the outside, a return to the olden days of PLO leadership in exile in Tunis.

Both the PA and Hamas have emphasized the urgency for unity, but without suggesting a new path or offering new compromises for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. They have overstressed the need for the international community, particularly the EU, to step in and prevent annexation, but they haven’t done much themselves to inspire international solidarity. The dual and sometimes dueling Palestinian leaderships have become a burden on its people rather than drivers for change.

Uninspired by such idle leaderships, the Palestinian street is fatigued and unenthusiastic. A few decades ago, coming this close to annexation would have triggered a Palestinian uprising, an intifada, against the occupation. Tens of thousands of people would be swarming from refugee camps, cities and villages to the Israeli army’s checkpoints and stations to make their voice heard to the entire world.

Masked Hamas militants wearing "We are ready for you, Al Aqsa" headbands carry a model of the Dome of the Rock during a protest against the Trump Mideast plan. Gaza City, Feb. 21, 2020Credit: Adel Hana,AP

Nowadays, talk of annexation barely makes a ripple in popular discourses. The growing indifference amongst the immiserated Palestinian public is caused by three factors. The first factor is distraction of purpose; as the oppression of Palestinians has become multilayered, that Palestinians don’t know whether to first protest Abbas, Hamas, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Second, the lack of a unified representative leadership that could harness popular pressure for the advancement of Palestinian statehood, rather than factional gains, hinders grassroots mobilization. The Palestinian public is now unwilling to dance to Abbas’ or Hamas’ tune. Especially after the remarkable sacrifices Gazans made in the Return March were exploited to entice Qatari cash deliveries to Hamas, rather than being leveraged to lift any part of the blockade on Gaza.

The third factor is disappointment and disbelief in the effectiveness of popular actions, after Israel crushed Gaza’s Return March, which cost the lives of 217 protesters and injured 14,580, amidst global silence and little solidarity. Many Palestinians now ask what difference protesting will make if Israel’s relations with the international community will go as usual regardless.

All this means that there is little prospect for a centralized, coordinated large-scale non-violent intifada beyond some inevitable localized grassroots opposition, particularly, and most intensely, in areas directly impacted by annexation. Palestinian rage, compounded by despair, will only dramatically cause a great spike in decentralized and leaderless lone wolf attacks undertaken by those made most futureless and disadvantaged by the status quo.

Palestinian protestor confront Israeli forces during a Nakba Day demonstration against Israeli settlements on May 15, 2020 in al-Sawiya village, south of NablusCredit: AFP

That spike recalls the October 2015 wave of knifings by Palestinians across the West Bank and inside Israel, attacks undertaken out of despair by the young, unemployed and poor, most of whom didn’t expect to survive. Those attacks were nothing like a concerted non-violent resistance with an agenda to pressure Israel for change.

13 years of division – which Netanyahu heavily invested in fueling and perpetuating – have rendered Palestinian leaders incapable of formulating a meaningful strategy to Israel’s aggressions. When there’s no unified leadership, it’s easier and more convenient for Abbas and Hamas to point the blame on the other for one’s catastrophic failure or inaction rather than taking responsibility.

In parallel, there’s little popular trust in the de facto authorities. That is the result of having only one-time elections and constantly delaying the next, which spurs a deep disconnection between the public and the political elites. Those elites themselves are deeply alienated from what people really think about them when the public can’t hold them accountable through voting.

This state of paralysis could persist indefinitely unless Palestinians hold national presidential, parliamentary and PLO elections as a referendum on who’s most deserving of representing the public and in which direction to lead the Palestinian struggle.

Palestinian elections would reconnect the public with a leadership they chose, as it would revive electoral accountability and push political groups to account for a lost decade of failures and disappointments and set their priorities straight to mirror the popular will.

Children in Gaza City's Al-Shati refugee camp on May 15, 2020, as Palestinians Nakba Day Credit: AFP

Finally, Palestinian elections would most importantly give rise to alternative leadership than the usual spectrum with Hamas and Fatah at each end. As Hamas has conditioned its approval of elections on the PA ensuring respect for freedom of association and assembly, it would have to reciprocate, which means halting politically motivated detention and harassment within Gaza. This would provide a unique platform for mobilization outside traditional political parties.

While the EU and other major players in the international community develop strong and much needed deterrents to Israel’s looming annexation, it’s crucial to simultaneously exert an equal pressure on the PA leadership to move towards elections and on Israel to allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Reviving the democratic process in the occupied territories would challenge the idle navel-gazing of Palestinian leaders and re-energize the Palestinian public. The looming threat of annexation is an urgent wake-up call for Palestinians themselves, and not their tired, self-centered elites, to break through and make their voices heard.

Those voices are critical for another reason, too. Palestinian inaction would be the strongest talking point for annexationists to assuage, and then dismiss, international hostility to Israel's assault on the two state solution.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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