When PA President Mahmoud Abbas is angry, he often starts firing in all directions. That’s precisely what he has done in the aftermath of the recent upsurge of violence in the West Bank, which began with the drive-by shooting attack outside Ofra and the killing of two IDF soldiers near Givat Assaf.
It’s not that Abbas wasn’t angry and frustrated before the events of the past week. He has been extremely angry since US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. Trump’s additional decisions, including the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and suspending US financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as well as the closure of the PLO diplomatic mission, have further reinforced Abbas’s fear that something big is being cooked up against him and the Palestinians.
Abbas’s feeling of embattlement and exasperation has also intensified against a backdrop of reports suggesting that key Arab countries – such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates – have turned their backs on the Palestinians, and are headed toward normalizing their relations with Israel.
The IDF’s tough security measures – including the killing of Saleh Barghouti, who was reportedly involved in the Ofra attack, and Ashraf Na’awla, who shot dead two of his co-workers in the Barkan Industrial Park near Ariel – prompted Abbas and his senior officials in the PA and Fatah to direct most of their public and harsh criticism against Israel and the US. In private, however, some Ramallah officials also pointed an accusatory finger at Hamas and accused it of seeking to undermine the PA and instigate unrest in the West Bank.
For several months now, Abbas has been telling foreign and local figures with whom he meets in Ramallah on a regular basis that he’s convinced that Israel and the US administration are “colluding” with other Arab countries, specifically Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to undermine his regime and possibly remove him from power.
“President Abbas is convinced that there’s a big conspiracy against him,” said a Western diplomat who met with the PA president last week. “His strategy is essentially based on whining and complaining about a big conspiracy, which he believes is being concocted by the Israelis and Americans to get rid of him and liquidate the Palestinian cause. His strategy now is to try and rally as many countries as possible to support him against what he perceives as the most dangerous conspiracy facing the Palestinians ever.”
When IDF soldiers entered Ramallah and El-Bireh to search for the terrorists who carried out the attacks near Ofra and Givat Assaf, Abbas and his officials immediately contacted several world leaders to complain that the Israelis had “violated Palestinian sovereignty and international law.”
Some of the officials even went as far as claiming that the Israeli “incursion” into Ramallah, the de facto capital of the PA, was part of an “Israeli-American scheme” targeting Abbas.
But why would the Israelis and Americans want to see Abbas removed from power?
According to Fatah spokesman Osama Qawassmeh, this is all because of the PA president’s rejection of Trump’s “deal of the century” – a reference to the yet-to-be-announced plan for peace in the Middle East.
Qawassmeh also offered another reason as to why the IDF was operating inside Ramallah: because Abbas opposed a recent US resolution at the UN General Assembly that condemned Hamas for repeatedly firing rockets at Israel and inciting violence.
An official with the PA Foreign Ministry in Ramallah said that the Israeli “incursion” could not have happened had Israel not received a green light from Trump. In other words, this military operation was not aimed at capturing any terrorist, but simply to weaken Abbas. And, according to the official, it was Trump himself who gave Israel permission to enter Ramallah.
This claim is aimed at sending a message to the Palestinians and the rest of the world that Israel and the US administration are working together against Abbas because of his “bold” stance against their policies. Abbas is seeking to tell his people, many whom accuse him of being a puppet in the hands of the Israelis and Americans, that he’s actually paying a heavy price for daring to stand up to Israel and the Trump administration. To the outside world, Abbas is seeking to drive home the message that he is the victim of an Israeli-American-Arab conspiracy.
THERE IS no doubt that the Israeli security measures, especially the scenes of IDF soldiers on the streets of Ramallah and the demolition of the four-story house belonging to the Abu Hamid family in the nearby al-Am’ari refugee camp, did cause damage to the credibility of Abbas and his PA. For many Palestinians, the presence of the IDF soldiers inside Ramallah was a sign of the PA’s “impotence.” Others said that they saw the PA’s failure to send its security forces to confront the IDF as proof of the Palestinian leadership’s “collaboration” with Israel, especially through the ongoing and controversial security coordination between the two sides.
“How come we didn’t see one Palestinian policeman on the streets of Ramallah when the Israeli army was there?” asked Amjad Abu Omar, a resident of al-Am’ari camp. “It’s because they’re either afraid of confronting the Israeli army, or because they are working with the Israeli army. In both cases, what happened in the camp and other parts of Ramallah in the past week proves that the Palestinian Authority is ineffective and is acting against the interests of its people. This makes Abbas look weak and bad in the eyes of his people.”
Such talk, which has become commonplace among Palestinians, is the main reason behind the PA’s stepped up rhetorical attacks against Israel and the US administration, in response to the IDF “intrusion” into Ramallah and El-Bireh.
“Abbas feels that he has to prove to his people every morning that he’s not a collaborator [with Israel],” explained a veteran Palestinian journalist in Ramallah. “But while his rhetoric against Israel and the US seems to be acceptable to most Palestinians, his actions suggest that he’s playing a double game.”
The journalist said that the biggest proof that Abbas was playing a double game was this week’s meeting between PA minister Hussein al-Sheikh and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman.
“You can’t, on the one hand, tell your people that Israel is trying to kill you or remove you from power, while, on the other hand, you continue to send your senior officials to hold secret meetings with the Shin Bet and other Israelis,” the journalist pointed out. “The people have become accustomed to this type of double talk on the part of Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. Moreover, you can’t shout that Israel is acting against you and then travel to Jordan after receiving permission from the Israeli authorities to leave Ramallah. These contradictions have confused many Palestinians.”
The Jordanians and Egyptians also seem to be aware of Abbas’s contradictory positions. As the IDF was operating in Ramallah and al-Ama’ri camp, Abbas’s officials appealed to Jordan and Egypt to immediately intervene to stop Israeli “crimes” against the Palestinians.
However, Egyptian intelligence officials who met with Abbas in his office in Ramallah assured him that they had heard from the Israelis that there was no intention to harm him or any of his PA and Fatah officials.
Later in the week, Abbas heard a similar message of calm from Jordan’s King Abdullah during their meeting in Amman. According to a senior PA official, the Jordanian monarch assured Abbas that the kingdom is completely opposed to any attempt to undermine his authority.
“King Abdullah relayed a message from Israel to President Abbas to the effect that the Israeli security measures are limited and directed only against Hamas and its armed cells in the West Bank,” the official said.
Although they have thus far refrained from saying so openly, Abbas and his officials believe that the recent terrorist attacks in the West Bank are the direct result of the purported understandings reached between Israel and Hamas, including the transfer of $30 million Qatari cash to the Gaza Strip in the past few weeks. Officials in Abbas’s Mukata presidential compound said this week that the Qatari cash has emboldened Hamas and sent the wrong message to Palestinians – namely, that violence pays.
They also see the purported understandings as part of Trump’s unseen “deal of the century,” which, they claim, is aimed at establishing a separate Hamas-ruled Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.
“Hamas is raising its head in the West Bank because its leaders now feel safe and comfortable in the Gaza Strip, thanks to the Qatari funds and the ceasefire agreement with Israel,” said one of Abbas’s top advisers. “We believe that Israel and the US administration now have an interest in keeping Hamas in power.”
Last week, Abbas sought to send a warning to Hamas, when he sent his police officers to violently break up rallies organized by Hamas supporters in Hebron and Nablus. The beating of the Hamas men and women and the subsequent arrest of scores of Hamas supporters were Abbas’s way of reminding the Gaza-based movement that he will not allow it to infiltrate the West Bank.
Abbas’s sense of isolation is being reinforced by the apparent rapprochement between some Arab countries and Israel. He feels that some of the countries are today closer to Israel than to the PA leadership and the Palestinians.
As one Palestinian political analyst put it, “Abbas now finds more sympathy in Western capitals than in many Arab countries.”
Here’s more disturbing news for Abbas: A public opinion poll published this week in the West Bank showed that the 83-year-old Palestinian president would lose to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, if elections were held today. The poll, conducted by the widely respected pollster Khalil Shikaki, was published as Haniyeh was on his way to Egypt and Russia for talks on the “latest developments in the Palestinian arena.”
Facing all these challenges, Abbas has been left with a simple strategy – one that calls for intensifying the PA’s diplomatic warfare against Israel in the international arena, while doing everything possible to make sure that he stays in power until his last day.
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