Who will succeed Abbas?

There seems to be a dearth of a young guard to replace the PA president as he approaches his 80th birthday

Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would win elections for Palestinian president according to a poll held in early summer by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would win elections for Palestinian president according to a poll held in early summer by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
AMAL AL-QASEM is nothing if not energetic. At 54 years old, a lifelong Fatah leader and community activist in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Al-Qasem devotes most of her time to the Women’s Forum of Sheikh Jarrah, overseeing programs in women’s education, providing advice on a host of cultural, economic, political, media, and legal issues to Arab women in the area.
In that capacity, al-Qasem is uniquely positioned to speak about the up-and- coming generation of Palestinian leaders. In the sitting room of her modest home on a quiet side street near the American Colony Hotel, al-Qasem is a welcoming hostess, but it is clear immediately that she views Israel’s interest in the next generation of Palestinian leadership as yet one more example of unlimited chutzpa.
She strongly rejects as “nonsense” the assertion that repeated polls show a majority of Jerusalem Palestinians do not want to live under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. “The Palestinian Authority meets the needs of ordinary Palestinians, and I can tell you that people in the PA are very satisfied, if only because it is ours. I would prefer to be poor in my state than rich under occupation,” she asserts to The Jerusalem Report .
The photographs on the coffee table of al-Qasem with late PA president Yasser Arafat and current President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) make clear where her political sympathies lie. Ditto for the enormous painting of Omar al-Qasem, Amal’s brother who died in an Israeli jail in 1989, having served 21 years for armed infiltration into Israel following the Six Day War.
Finally, she claims that no grassroots movement for change is necessary in Palestinian society because, in her view, the founding generation of Palestinian leaders have stewarded the Palestinian cause effectively and responsibly.
“I hope the candidate [to replace Abu Mazen] will be young enough to lead with energy but old enough to display some wisdom, probably someone between the ages of 40-60. He must be educated, cultured, honest – the PLO never stole money. I’d love the next leader to be a woman,” she says, adding her belief that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians will vote to continue in their leaders’ footsteps whenever elections are held.
Outside the al-Qasem home, however, Palestinians on the streets of East Jerusalem paint a sharply different view of the PA and of al-Qasem’s generation. These people say that although the leaders sacrificed for the Palestinian cause, they lost touch with the needs of ordinary people once they established the Authority in May 1994. At best, taxi drivers, shop owners, high school students, and others freely criticize leaders like Arafat and Abbas for having become “fat and lazy” and having lost touch with run-of-the-mill Palestinians. At worst, they feel the PA is little more than a corrupt dictatorship in the worst tradition of failed Arab regimes around the Middle East.
“No, I don’t feel represented by Abu Mazen or the current generation of Palestinian leaders. PLO/PA culture is defined by the old-school approach, where one leader holds on to power forever.
They are a throwback to a time gone by,” says Mahmoud Muna, the owner of a bookshop near the Old City.
“TAKE THE way they speak to the Israeli left. Abu Mazen meets with the Israeli left and virtually pleads with them to believe that we Palestinians are peaceful people, as if that were a point that needs to be proven.
I would rather see a Palestinian leader take young Israelis to East Jerusalem, to Ramallah, to Hebron to see what we are doing – making music, film and theater pieces; creating high-tech businesses; going to bars and enjoying life. I want our leader to show that we are not the terrorist monsters that we are portrayed to be in the Israeli media, but rather normal people trying to live our lives.
“Instead, Abu Mazen bows down to Israelis, instead of standing up tall and presenting a proud side of Palestine,” Muna tells The Report.
Bassem Eid, the founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and a former field worker for the Israeli B’Tselem human rights organization says the failure of the current leadership to respect civil rights and to address the needs of ordinary Palestinians is the deepest source of frustration for even the most hardened veterans of the decades-long struggle against Israel.
“I was in Bethlehem recently when a man approached me, saying he’d been released from prison last year, as part of the third installment in the context of the John Kerry Israel-Palestine talks,” Eid tells The Report.
“Less than a year after his release, he came to me with these empty-looking eyes, saying he would have been better off had he remained back in an Israeli jail.
“‘Fatah are nothing more than a bunch of gangsters,’ he said,” Eid relates.
Even amid the current wave of Israel- Palestinian violence in eastern Jerusalem, it is difficult to overstate the strong feelings of frustration among ordinary Palestinians – not only vis-à-vis Abbas and his contemporaries, but also with the fact that local leaders, academic “experts” on the Palestinians and the international community appear to know little about their needs and desires, and appear to care even less.
Nor is the phenomenon new. As early as 1996, many Palestinians expressed deep disappointment that positions of authority in the nascent PA were occupied mainly by PLO apparatchiks who had enjoyed years of luxury treatment as official guests in Tunisia, while the local activists who fought the first intifada were considered little more than pesky annoyances to the “outsiders” who created the PA.
More recently, many Palestinians remember well the anticipation they felt as popular protests broke out around the Arab world in December 2010 – popular revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria (with varying degrees of uccess) spurred hopes for Palestinians that progress could be made on local issues with regard to both Israel and a local Palestinian leadership that many people describe as “failed.”
But those hopes appear to be of little consequence to local NGOs, political observers and academic experts who seem to be unable to look past individuals such as Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, two fearsome ex-security chiefs who garner important name recognition in the West but who are seen by locals as little more than washed-up has-beens, who represent little more than “more of the same.” Even the few new names bandied about, such as General Majid Faraj, hardly fit the description of a “new” generation of Palestinian leader.
Faraj is an Abbas confidant and the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Services.
When speaking about Palestinian leaders, the one well-known name that appears in every conversation is Marwan Barghouti, the commander of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade who is serving five life sentences plus 40 years in an Israeli prison for his role in a string of murders during the second intifada. Several left-wing Israeli politicians, including former Meretz chairman Haim Oron, have advocated releasing Barghouti in the context of a prisoner swap. Oron told Haaretz earlier this year that Barghouti’s “stance, as I understand it, is that we need to end the conflict. People close to him are partners in the Geneva Initiative and other initiatives.”
MANY PALESTINIAN supporters like to compare Barghouti to South African leader Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison only to emerge as one of the great leaders of the 20th century after leading the country out of apartheid peacefully.
However, given Barghouti’s repeated calls over the years of his imprisonment for violence against Israeli civilians, Israeli leaders presumably do not see Barghouti as a Palestinian version of Mandela and are thus unlikely to release him to succeed Abbas.
Still, Mahmoud Muna notes that Barghouti was one of the Palestinians most involved in meeting with Israelis, a fact Muna believes demonstrates that Barghouti is not a “push Israel into the sea” sort of person, but rather is committed to coexistence. “Yes, he was involved with the second intifada,” Muna says. “Within a liberation struggle, resisting occupation by several means is one of those commitments that leaders need to do.”
Furthermore, Muna adds his belief – widespread among Palestinians – that “attacks are the only language Israel understands,” and says the attacks orchestrated by Barghouti created a situation that forced Israel to recognize that Palestinians had the ability to hurt them if Israel did not come to the table, and would not hesitate to use that power. Even given the widespread discussion of Barghouti as potential leader, it is noteworthy that few observers appear to give any credibility to the notion that younger, non-militant Palestinians with strong leadership credentials could actually take up the mantle of leadership for a nascent Palestine.
ALL OF which is not to say that there are no young Palestinians with the potential to make waves inside their society.
Take 26-year-old Fadi Quran, a native of the el-Bireh suburb of Ramallah with fluent English and graduate degrees in physics and international relations from Stanford University. Quran, who serves today as vice president of operations at Riah Al-Istiklal, an alternative energy start-up in Ramallah, has served several jail terms for a series of non-violent protest activities, including an arrest after he led a group of Palestinians boarding an Egged bus outside the settlement of Psagot, north of Jerusalem. Earlier this year he was the “star” of a video clip that showed IDF soldiers in Hebron beating Quran even though he seemed to be doing nothing more than arguing with the soldiers that Palestinians be allowed to traverse Shuhada Street, a main thoroughfare in the city that abuts the city’s small Jewish enclave.
Or Ali Abu Awwad, a veteran of Israeli jails and the scion of a Fatah family in Beit Ummar, near Hebron. After his brother was killed in a clash with the IDF during the second intifada, Awwad became active in the Parents Circle-Families Forum, and later helped form Roots/ Judur/Shorashim, the Palestinian Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Reconciliation. At 42 years of age, Abu Awwad is the author of “Painful Hope” and has lectured to audiences in Israel, the West Bank (including inside Israeli settlements) and around the world about his journey from violent “resistance” to Martin Luther King-style nonviolence.
Or Issa Amro, the head of the Youth Against Settlements movement in Hebron.
Like Fadi Quran, Amro has been arrested multiple times for his altercations with IDF forces and Jewish residents in Hebron.
Jewish Hebronites claim Amro has a history of violence, but several sources close to Amro reject the charge, saying the settlers view any attempt to document their abuses as “terrorism.”
So who will succeed Abbas? As the current rais approaches his 80th birthday in March, many local Palestinians shrug their shoulders in frustration, saying they do not expect any significant change in the foreseeable future. It is a point with which Bassem Eid has little choice but to agree, however wistfully.
“For some reason, the Europeans and human rights community that is so critical of Israel – and rightly so – feels a need to give the Palestinians a free pass. They aren’t doing the Palestinians any favors, but I’m afraid there is just virtually no platform for any new-generation leaders to voice their criticism and to present relevant alternatives to the disappointment they have suffered for 20 years,” Eid says.
“It’s a shame, really.”