Rumors about Abbas’s health resurface amid talk of PA succession battle

Similar rumors concerning Abbas’s health condition have circulated in the past, prompting senior officials to hold deposed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan responsible.

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to people as he bids farewell to Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during a live fire exchange in Jenin, in Ramallah in the West Bank May 12, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to people as he bids farewell to Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during a live fire exchange in Jenin, in Ramallah in the West Bank May 12, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

Rumors about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s state of health re-emerged on Saturday night, suggesting an escalating battle over his succession that has been raging in Ramallah the past few weeks.

Abbas, 86, has been criticized for promoting his close confidant, Hussein al-Sheikh, to the key post of Secretary-General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the number two slot in the Palestinian hierarchy, previously held by Saeb Erekat, who died in November 2020.

Sheikh, 61, is a senior official with the ruling Fatah faction and head of the Palestinian Authority’s General Authority of Civil Affairs.

In recent months, he has been considered a leading candidate to succeed Abbas, mainly because he is one of his most trusted aides.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh speaks to The Media Line in his office in Ramallah. (credit: THE MEDIA LINE)Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh speaks to The Media Line in his office in Ramallah. (credit: THE MEDIA LINE)

Is Abbas's health in danger?

The latest rumors began circulating after a report on Twitter by the BBC in Arabic claimed that Sheikh has been entrusted with some of Abbas’s substantial duties due to his health condition.

But Sheikh was the first to vehemently deny the report. “There is no truth to the yellow journalism news circulating about the health of President Abbas, and he is in good health and is on the top of his work as usual,” he wrote on Twitter. “What is being circulated is an attempt at tampering with the internal Palestinian situation.”

Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior Fatah and PLO official, also denied the rumors. “The news circulating about the health of President Mahmoud Abbas and assigning PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh to perform some essential tasks related to the president are not true,” he said.Ahmed claimed that “Israeli parties” were behind the rumors, but did not provide further details. He also stressed that Abbas was in good health.

Tawfik Tirawi, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and a former head of the PA General Intelligence Service in the West Bank, accused “suspicious and anonymous parties” of standing behind the rumors.

Despite the denials, some Palestinian and Arab social media users insisted that Abbas had been transferred to hospital after a deterioration in his health condition. Others claimed that he was in a coma.

The rumors surfaced hours after the PA’s official news agency Wafa reported that Abbas and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed during a phone call the “dangerous situation in the Palestinian territories.”

Abbas told Macron that the Palestinian leadership was about to take measures to confront the Israeli “escalation in light of the failure of the international community to force Israel to comply with the resolutions of international legitimacy,” according to the report, which did not specify the nature of the planned steps.

Past rumors about Abbas's health

SIMILAR RUMORS concerning Abbas’s health condition have circulated in the past, prompting senior officials to hold deposed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan responsible. A former PA security commander of the Gaza Strip based in the United Arab Emirates, Dahlan is considered a fierce political foe of Abbas.

Palestinian sources, however, said that they did not rule out the possibility that veteran Fatah officials in Ramallah, opposed to Sheikh’s appointment as PLO secretary-general, were behind the latest rumors.

According to the sources, the officials expressed outrage over the appointment, saying Abbas took the decision without consulting with Fatah and PLO leaders.

“Whoever is behind the rumors is trying to drive a wedge between President Abbas and Hussein al-Sheikh,” the sources said. “Someone is trying to make it appear as if al-Sheikh is eager to replace the president. The rumors reflect the state of turmoil in Fatah.”

Abbas, who was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, has been facing criticism after Hamas scored a landslide victory last month in the student council elections at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah. He has also faced criticism for canceling the presidential and parliamentary elections that were supposed to have taken place in May and July 2021.

Abbas’s critics within Fatah argue that their faction is paying the price for the PA leadership’s policies, especially its insistence on maintaining security coordination with Israel despite the latest tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Muwafak Sahweel, Secretary-General of Fatah in Ramallah and el-Bireh, announced his resignation after his faction’s defeat in the elections. “I bear full responsibility and call for the formation of a committee of inquiry because I have a lot to say,” Sahweel said in a statement. “Fatah has been filled with intruders and mercenaries.”

Several other Fatah members in other cities and towns in the West Bank also submitted their resignations after the results of the student council elections were announced.