As the Palestinian street seethes, Marwan Barghouti makes his bid to replace Mahmoud Abbas

So far, Barghouti is the only senior PLO-Fatah leader who has had the courage to officially announce his candidacy.

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April 9, 2016 13:11
Barghouti

Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti gestures before a Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court hearing in 2012.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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EARLY IN March, Fadwa Barghouti, the energetic wife of Marwan who is jailed in an Israeli prison, asked the Israel Defense Forces to allow her to visit Gaza.

She wanted to “test the waters” there in the wake of her husband’s decision to run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority when PA President Mahmoud Abbas leaves office. The IDF declined.

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Israel doesn’t wish to assist Barghouti’s campaign.

So far, Barghouti is the only senior PLO-Fatah leader who has had the courage to officially announce his candidacy. He was a supporter of the 1994 Oslo Accords and the peace with Israel, and met freely with Israeli officials. But he also became the charismatic leader of the Tanzim militia, founded in 1995 by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group to counter Hamas and other militant Palestinian-Islamist groups.



When the second intifada broke out in 2000, he commanded another Fatah off-shoot ‒ the al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, which spearheaded the armed struggle in the West Bank. He was arrested by Israeli security forces in 2002, and in 2004 was sentenced by the Tel Aviv District Court to five terms of life imprisonment for involvement in the murder of five Israelis. Yet, despite the jail terms, or rather because of them, Barghouti is considered one of the most popular and important leaders of the Palestinian movement.

Until a year ago, talk about a successor to Abbas was unheard of in the PA and Palestinian journalists who dared hint about the subject found themselves being grilled at the offices of one of the five PA security services.



But, in April 2015, it was Abbas himself who floated the topic by talking publicly about his intentions to retire. Since then, the issue has changed from a “whisper in the dark to legitimate discourse,” as a Palestinian source described it.

The succession issue is now a major and important topic occupying the Palestinian leadership. Abbas at 82 is in fragile health.

He is a chain smoker going through three packs a day. Though he has ceased talking about retirement, it could happen at any time for one reason or another.

Various names in the West Bank and in the Palestinian diaspora have been bandied about as potential candidates to replace Abbas if and when he leaves office. However, Barghouti’s candidacy is gaining momentum and other potential candidates, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, and the former security chief of Gaza Muhammad Dahlan have said that if Barghouti runs for the office, they will drop out of the race and support him.

Fadwa, who relentlessly campaigns for the release of her husband, talks about him as the “Palestinian Nelson Mandela.”

A scenario in which Barghouti is elected as Abbas’s heir while he is sitting behind bars is a cause of concern for Israeli military chiefs and the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon fear that in such eventuality, they may find themselves in a quandary since international pressure to release the “jailed president” would be very strong. On the other hand, they would be under domestic pressure from right-wing circles not to release the master terrorist with “blood on his hands.”

These uncertainties about the future Palestinian leadership are developing against the background of the “routine” current wave of violence that is sweeping Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian factions are involved in a semantic struggle how to define it – Hamas talks about a third intifada and the PA refers to it as a hawa, or eruption. However, what is more important than words and definitions is the reality on the ground.

Since the new cycle of violence began about six months ago, 34 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed by Palestinians using knives, vehicles and, more recently, firearms. One hundred and ninety Palestinians, two-thirds of them attackers, have been killed by the IDF, police, security guards and, in rare cases, civilians.

Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers claim that the PA media are to be blamed for inciting violence and fueling the fire. Yet, the truth is much more complex. Israeli military sources admit that while Hamas is indeed inciting and calling for an armed struggle in the West Bank (though not in Hamas-controlled Gaza), Abbas’s position is more nuanced. He and his associates neither shed tears when Israelis are killed nor condemn the acts of terror, but at the same time don’t want it to get out of control. Their hope is that this kind of popular struggle will continue without escalating into a major confrontation between the two sides. In short, they hope to, as a military source described it, “ride and tame the angry tiger.”

At the same time, the PA’s security services continue to maintain their cooperation with the IDF and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet Agency). In the past year, at least 80 meetings between the two sides have taken place at the rank of colonel and higher and, occasionally, between the security chiefs.

This cooperation is one of the most important tools in the Israeli intelligence box to thwart terrorism, arrest suspects and confiscate weapons.

Another important tool is economic cooperation.

More than 100,000 Palestinian workers (thousands of them illegal) are employed in Israeli services and construction, and, ironically, building Jewish settlements.

The money they earn is a significant contribution to the Palestinian economy and the PA budget. Another 190,000 are employed by the PA, 20,000 of them as police or security officers. The PA has an annual budget of roughly NIS 15 billion ($3.7b.). More than half originates in the tax returns supplied by Israel for the earnings of the Palestinians workers, 35 percent from local West Bank taxes and levies, and the rest from foreign aid and contributions. The dependency of the Palestinian economy and its 2.7 million inhabitants on Israel is total.

Compared to the situation in Gaza, the West Bank is heaven. The suffering and misery of the 1.8 million Gazans who live in a 365-square kilometer ghetto is unbearable.

Five hundred people drowned in the Mediterranean last year when they tried to leave by sailing out in small boats. The number of suicides increases by the day. Sixty percent are unemployed. Many, especially children, are hungry. The birth rate is among the highest in the world as is the population density with 4,800 people per square kilometer.

Most of the water is undrinkable and half the time there is no electricity. Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since its military takeover a decade ago, is the one to be blamed. Its leaders, especially the military wing, whose grip on the power has dramatically increased since the summer 2014 war, are indifferent to the destiny and despair of their people.

The suffering is especially acute when it comes to the construction crisis. One hundred and thirty thousand homes were destroyed or damaged by the IDF during the war. The international community pledged to donate $5b., but only one-third was actually donated and reached Gaza, more than half ‒ $800 million ‒ from Qatar.

To prevent Hamas from confiscating cement, iron and other building materials and using it to dig tunnels, Israel, together with the UN and the PA, designed a special computerized system based on servers in Oslo that monitors every kilogram of cement supplied to Gaza. Gazan suppliers certified by Israel – there are 100 – who are caught selling the materials in an unaccountable manner are banned and their licenses revoked.

The tight inspection causes Hamas problems so it tries to buy the materials on the black market, but this is not sufficient to build solid and safe tunnels, which is the major reason for the increasing number of collapsing tunnels.

Though neither the PA nor Hamas want a new round of hostilities, the Palestinian despair may lead to a new uprising or large confrontation.

After the 1973 war with Egypt, the refrain from Egyptian poets and writers to their Israeli counterparts was something like: “You had the best intelligence in the world but you didn’t understand our society.

All you needed to do was read our poetry and literature rather than recruiting agents.”

The IDF and Shin Bet research departments are learning the lessons. They read social media and know that there is a “new Palestinian” who defies authority, any authority ‒ his parents, his leaders and the Israeli occupation.

The problem is that the right-wing Netanyahu government doesn’t listen, and maybe doesn’t even read the security reports. The military and security establishments almost beg the government: Ease the situation by making diplomatic moves, offer significant gestures to ease the Palestinian predicament, which is on the verge of a huge explosion.

And, if this is not enough, there are ministers led by Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin who want to see the PA collapse – and then what, the flood?

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.

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