Middle East conflict"The Palestinians face repression on all sides"
Two months after the escalation between the Israeli leadership and militant Palestinians, the power struggle within the Palestinian leadership is intensifying. In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas is holding on to his rule with increasing force. Hamas, on the other hand, which controls the Gaza Strip, is looking to increase its influence in the Occupied Territories. Khaled Elgindy from the Middle East Institute in Washington explains the pressure Palestinians are under and why Hamas is likely to be the principal beneficiary. Elgindy advised the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah from 2004 to 2009.
Mr. Elgindy, in recent weeks Palestinians have repeatedly protested for an end to President Abbas's term in office. Does this mark a turning point?
Khaled Elgindy: I think so. Mahmoud Abbas has long been unpopular among the Palestinians, but his popularity has plummeted even further in recent months. When he cancelled the parliamentary elections in spring, it disappointed many people. Many Palestinians also regarded him as incompetent and incapable of action during the escalation with Israel in May. For many, this reinforced the feeling that Abbas has lost all legitimacy. Most recently, he ordered massive coercive measures against demonstrators who revolted after the death of activist Nizar Banat. That was the turning point.
At the end of June security forces arrested Abbas critic Nizar Banat and beat him to death. During the protests this triggered, demonstrators were beaten, while many women reported being sexually assaulted. Why is Abbas choosing to be so cruel to his critics right now?
Elgindy: Abbas knows he has forfeited much of his popular support. He has become paranoid over time and feels threatened by anyone who might dispute his leadership, including his colleagues within Fatah. For instance, his rival Nasser al-Qudwa, who had prepared his own list of candidates in the run-up to the elections, was unceremoniously expelled from Fatah.
Is Abbas becoming increasingly authoritarian?
Elgindy: Yes. From what I gather, the human rights situation in the West Bank is bad. Not only are the people constantly bullied by the Israeli army, they also have fewer and fewer rights under their own leadership. The Palestinian Authority has been cracking down on civil society for years, and has repeatedly arrested people for making critical posts on Facebook, for example. Since the murder of Nizar Banat, Abbas’ security forces have ramped up their brutal treatment of activists, arresting and beating them. Abbas has reacted to the protests much as Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak did during the early days of the Egyptian revolution.
Would everything be better if Mahmoud Abbas were gone?
Elgindy: It would at least give the Palestinians the opportunity to form a new political leadership. But that in itself would have advantages and disadvantages. A power struggle would probably break out within Fatah and the umbrella organisation PLO, which could lead to unrest. There will be no political reform while Abbas is in control, however. He rules in a repressive and backward-looking way. Abbas is determined to hold on to power till the end, come what may.
In contrast to Abbas, Hamas is more popular than ever with many Palestinians. During the escalation in May, the Islamists fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, posing as the saviours of the Palestinians. Isn't that a worrying development?
Elgindy: Definitely for the West. It has been 15 years since Hamas won the last election in the Palestinian Territories. Even so, the heads of government in the United States and Europe still have no strategy for dealing with Hamas other than boycotting it. Were Hamas to win the next election or become part of a ruling coalition, they would have no idea what to do.