The Palestinian leadership keeps making the same past mistakes

Prof. Elie Podeh December 2023

The reactions from the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) following the October 7 massacre – Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and others – reflect a significant moral failure. Moreover, their willingness to integrate Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) post-war appears to be politically unwise and self-defeating.

From within Hamas, particularly among its leadership outside Gaza, there have been calls for the organization’s integration into the PLO. While this isn’t a new objective for Hamas, it appears that its external leaders now perceive integration with the PLO not only as a means to eventually seize control of the PLO and, consequently, the PA, but also as a strategy for securing political survival post the catastrophic events that Hamas has brought upon Gaza.

PA’s recurring willingness to seek agreements with Hamas is a consistent mistake

The PA’s recurring willingness to seek agreements with Hamas has proven to be a consistent mistake. This trend first surfaced during the Oslo Accords era when Arafat declined to disband Hamas and Islamic Jihad, despite their engagement in acts of terrorism that significantly contributed to the breakdown of the political process with Israel. Furthermore, during the uprising from 2000 to 2005, Fatah’s own factions, including Al-Aqsa Brigades, became involved in terror attacks against Israel.

The subsequent incident was Abbas’s choice not to dismantle the Palestinian ‘resistance’ organizations, but rather to broker an agreement with them, establishing a suspension of hostilities (tahdiya) in March 2005. This move aimed to secure calmness preceding Sharon’s plan for disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005. However, this decision starkly contradicted the positions of both Israel and the United States. Abbas prioritized preserving the appearance of Palestinian unity over other critical interests. Notably, the use of the term ‘tahdiya,’ instead of ‘hudna’ which signifies a ‘ceasefire’ with binding Islamic implications, indicated that the resistance movements had no intention of disarming. Instead, they sought to create an illusion of acceptance to prevent undermining the Israeli retreat from Gaza.

However, in the six months leading up to the disengagement, terror attacks persisted, particularly by Islamic Jihad. Consequently, Hamas could claim that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, akin to its retreat from Lebanon, resulted from armed struggle rather than a diplomatic process. This stance, coupled with widespread public discontent over Fatah’s corruption, led to Hamas’s electoral triumph in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections of January 2006.

The third repetition of this error was the 2007 agreement brokered in Mecca between Hamas and Fatah, mediated by Saudi Arabia. This accord resulted in the formation of a Palestinian unity government led by Ismail Haniyeh. However, just five months later, Hamas forcibly ousted the PA from Gaza in a violent coup. This act blatantly violated the Mecca Agreement, which expressly mandated a “ban on the shedding of Palestinian blood… and adoption of the language of dialogue as the sole basis for solving political disagreements in the Palestinian arena.”

The fourth event was the deal inked between Fatah and Hamas in October 2017 in Cairo, mediated by Egypt. The primary point of contention that caused the collapse of this agreement stemmed from Hamas’s resistance to disarmament. Their stance was rooted in the assertion that their arms were aimed at Israel rather than the PA.

The PA’s inclination to incorporate Hamas into its power structures post-war contradicts its own self-interest for two critical reasons. Firstly, this move could pave the way for Hamas to eventually seize control of the PA, akin to the historical precedent of Hamas’s takeover of Gaza and expulsion of the PA in 2007. Secondly, due to staunch opposition from the United States and Israel, such a proposal lacks any political feasibility.

Why does the Palestinian Authority pursue a policy that contradicts its own interests?

Why does the Palestinian Authority pursue a policy that contradicts its own interests? One explanation could be its vulnerability or a lack of internal legitimacy, compelling Abbas and Fatah leaders to adopt a stance that aligns with public sentiment. According to a survey conducted by Khalil Shikaki’s respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research following the outbreak of the conflict, support for Hamas in the West Bank surged threefold in response to the attack, while trust in Abbas and Fatah dwindled significantly, with around 90% of the public favoring Abbas’s resignation. Additionally, approximately 60% of Palestinians view armed struggle as the most effective means in the conflict with Israel.

In this regard, Abbas and the PA leadership resemble leaders of several Arab states, notably Jordan, who have condemned Israel rather than Hamas, occasionally employing strong rhetoric in their statements. However, while Jordan has upheld its peace treaty with Israel, Abbas’s current commitment to the political process remains uncertain. His adviser, Mahmoud al-Habbash, asserts that Abbas has consistently condemned Hamas in meetings with world leaders, but refrains from doing so publicly during the war. Yet, this assertion remains unverified.

An emerging perspective in Israel posits that the fundamental disparity between Fatah and Hamas lies solely in the methods employed to achieve their shared ultimate objective: the elimination of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state encompassing the entire region from the river to the sea. However, it’s important to note that the historical actions taken by the PA, especially by Abbas himself, do not align with this assertion. This viewpoint, supported by the Netanyahu government, seemingly stems from its reluctance to involve the PA in Gaza post-war. This stance contradicts Israel’s policy in the West Bank, where efforts are made to strengthen the PA under the leadership of Abbas and Fatah.

Irrespective of Israel’s current stance, if the PA aspires to play a role in the post-war scenario in Gaza, as desired by the United States and various states in the Arab world and beyond, it must disavow Hamas and refuse to give it a role in post-war Gaza. Failure to do so risks undermining the PA’s credibility as a feasible negotiating partner. A step in this direction was the statement by Hussein al-Sheikh, Secretary General of the executive committee of the PLO, that “all Palestinian factions including Hamas must take a serious look at the failure of their policies to achieve freedom for their people.”

The primary challenge lies in the lack of substantial popular support for the current PA leadership. Hence, any prospective agreement may necessitate engaging with a different leadership – one that is democratically elected, enjoys legitimacy, remains dedicated to a political resolution, and is both capable and willing to confront any Palestinian entity resorting to violence.

The article was published on the Jerusalem Post on December 20.

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