The aging leader tried to capitalize on his people’s unrest by taking unprecedented steps against Israel. Instead, he may have just made the argument against his rule even stronger.
The closest the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got to an actual third intifada, or uprising, happened late this past month when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas mobilized the shadowy militia elements of his party for widespread Friday protests. What the lone-wolf stabbing attacks that have plagued Israel for the past several years lacked—and what both the first and second intifadas had—was political leadership and support. In activating the Tanzim, a faction of his own party that Abbas has struggled to control, the Palestinian President was sanctioning his people’s unrest.
It was an unprecedented step from Abbas. In his 12 years as President, he has feuded with the elements of his party that carried out attacks during the second intifada, declared security coordination with Israel “sacred,” and largely avoided participating in large-scale protests. And yet, after Israel initiated several security measures in response to a terror attack at the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, Abbas crossed the Rubicon. He froze all ties with Israel, including security coordination, met with leaders of the protests, and urged his people to march in every public square across the West Bank. The crisis was finally resolved when Israel removed the security cameras and opened Bab al-Hutta (where the attack took place), but the impact of this near-catastrophic escalation will linger. Palestinians see the massive protests that rocked Jerusalem as the reason for Israel’s acquiescence. When tensions flare again, they’ll look to a political leadership willing to support them in these tactics.
And they may start to look elsewhere for leadership. The aging Abbas has turned increasingly autocratic in recent years. He’s overseen a purge of his own party, including the ouster of Mohammad Dahlan, a former security chief who recently announced an agreement with Hamas, Abbas’s rivals in Gaza. Abbas has also clamped down on political expression, regularly arresting students and shutting down websites critical of his government. To top it off, he spends most of his time outside the West Bank. His people have responded with varying levels of unrest: A majority of Palestinians want him to resign, and refugee camps in the West Bank have become flashpoints for clashes with the PA. The Balata camp in Nablus and al-Amari camp between Jerusalem and Ramallah have seen sustained fights against PA forces in recent years.
Abbas’s policies have also come under heavy scrutiny. In recent months, he has attempted to turn up the pressure on Hamas in Gaza financially. He cut off electricity payments to Israeli power reactors, effectively plunging the Strip into darkness during the hottest days of Ramadan. He has sanctioned Hamas leaders, halted payments to Hamas prisoners, and even forced his own PA employees in Gaza into early retirement. He coupled this pressure campaign with calls from his top advisers for Gazans to take to the streets and overthrow Hamas, but to no avail. Instead, Gazans stayed home and endured devastating conditions while Hamas entreated Egypt and Dahlan to allow imports of emergency fuel shipments. A majority of Palestinians view Abbas’s actions as a cruel punishment of everyday Gazans.
The terror attack on July 14 at al-Aqsa took the Palestinians’ attention away from Gaza and Abbas’ actions there, and returned it to Jerusalem, where the West Bank leadership attempted to steer the events. Yet the relationship between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem has always been murky. Under the Oslo Accords, the PA was to have no official representation in the city, as its status was to be determined by negotiations. Instead, both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its dominant faction, the Fatah party, would be able to maintain links to the city. Since the accords, the PA’s leadership in Jerusalem has become fragmented: In the height of the terror of the second intifada, Israel closed the Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in East Jerusalem. Fatah officials in Jerusalem have become disconnected from the rest of the leadership, owing in part to Israeli restrictions on movement. Complicating matters, some of the Islamic officials in charge of the al-Aqsa compound are appointed by Jordan, others by the Palestinian leadership. All of these factors have contributed to the isolation of East Jerusalem. “There is no Fatah or Hamas here,” one East Jerusalemite told reporters this week. “Just the people.”
The crisis in Jerusalem underscores the simple fact of the Abbas era: He does not control events on the ground; rather, they control him. It was Abdullah of Jordan who bypassed the PA to work out a deal with Israel to remove the metal detectors. And it was the East Jerusalem Islamic officials who declared that the status quo was restored and Palestinian Muslims could return to pray at the al-Aqsa compound. In freezing all ties with Israel and supporting the street leaders within his party, Abbas was pulling out all the stops to retain some semblance of relevance.
But his actions may have shifted the center of gravity within his own party. The three likeliest contenders to replace him—Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, and Mahmoud al-Aloul—all represent a significant shift of power back to the Palestinian street. And all three figures have connections to the Tanzim, the faction within Fatah that Abbas mobilized this week. Barghouti was the commander of Fatah’s terror activities during the second intifada and remains wildly popular with everyday Palestinians. Rajoub came in second behind Barghouti in the group’s internal elections in November and has rallied a base of support by running the Palestinian soccer federation. And al-Aloul, the newly appointed vice president of Fatah, is the former head of mobilization within the party and the point person for mass protests.
Abbas is 82 years old and hasn’t faced an election in over 12 years. Reports indicate he’s in poor, and possibly deteriorating, health. Many Palestinians—including his own allies and rivals—have begun to plan for the post-Abbas era. The events of the past month have Palestinians convinced that wide-scale, coordinated protests are the way forward. At some point, they’ll want a leadership that fully endorses it.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and coauthor of The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas.