Palestinian Affairs: Fighting to join forces

While attempting to form a national unity government, Abbas faces an intifada within Fatah.

abbas worried 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
abbas worried 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Mahmoud Abbas was back in Gaza City this week for another round of talks with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on the prospects of establishing a national unity government. Abbas arrived in the Gaza Strip straight from a meeting he held in Ramallah with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who voiced his full support for the Palestinian leader's efforts to join forces with Hamas. Abbas, his aides said, has also won the backing of some Arab and European countries for his national-unity plan. Last week he even managed to persuade the Fatah central committee, a decision-making body comprised of representatives of the "old guard" and former cronies of Yasser Arafat, to support his initiative. At the end of a three-day meeting in Amman, the committee members, some of whom have had their names linked to financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority over the past decade, authorized Abbas to launch negotiations with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions to explore the possibility of forming a broad coalition. Abbas's main argument is that the Palestinians can no longer bear the effects of the international sanctions imposed on them since Hamas took over the government earlier this year. Just before he headed to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, Abbas told thousands of angry government employees who came to demonstrate outside his office in Ramallah that the Hamas government was responsible for the continued sanctions by the international community. He explained that the national-unity government was needed to persuade the US and EU to resume financial aid to the Palestinians as soon as possible. "Only a national unity government would be able to bring us money," he said. The fact that most of the PA's 145,000 civil servants have not received full salaries for the past seven months has triggered a wave of protests and violent demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. The anger, however, is not directed only against Haniyeh and his Hamas government, but against Abbas and his Fatah party as well. WHILE ABBAS and his aides are exploiting the predicament of the miserable civil servants to incite against Hamas, the Hamas government and its spokesmen are telling the Palestinians that if anyone is responsible for the financial crisis, it is Abbas and his aides in Ramallah, who continue to receive tens of millions of dollars from various sources in the US and EU. According to one Hamas representative, "Abbas and the PLO are sitting on more than $1 billion. Why are they hiding the money from the people?" Another Hamas leader, Abdullah Abu Sabah, who serves as Minister of Culture in Haniyeh's cabinet, revealed that Abbas recently "took" $35 million from the budget to pay his top aides and advisers in the PLO and Fatah. The minister said that that was one of the reasons why his government was unable to pay full salaries to civil servants. Abbas's attempts to undermine the Hamas government by cashing in on the plight of the unpaid civil servants have thus far met little success. Many of the demonstrators who took to the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City to demand their salaries chose to chant slogans against Abbas and Fatah, accusing them of financial corruption and of being part of the US-led sanctions against the Hamas government. Abbas is now trying to use Fatah-controlled workers' unions to frighten the Hamas government. The teachers' union, for example, is now threatening to declare a general strike in all Palestinian schools on September 1. Other Fatah-controlled unions are threatening to follow suit. Ironically, Abbas's strenuous efforts to get rid of the Hamas government suffered a setback this week when a large group of Fatah representatives openly launched a scathing attack on him and the party's central committee members who met in Jordan. As Abbas sits with Hanyih to discuss the national-unity government, many disgruntled Fatah operatives are holding talks on the possibility of declaring an intifada against the "old guard." The reason: the Fatah central committee did not devote a single minute to discussing the implications of the party's defeat in the parliamentary elections earlier this year. Even worse, Abbas and his longtime colleagues ignored repeated demands for reforming Fatah and holding internal elections as one of the lessons to be drawn from the stunning defeat. AWARE OF the challenges facing Abbas from within his own party, Haniyeh and his Hamas friends are unlikely to soften their position regarding the formation of a national-unity government. On the contrary, if Hamas was prepared in the past to consider the possibility of endorsing a more pragmatic approach to the conflict with Israel, the Islamic movement is now expected to come up with tough conditions for allowing Fatah to join the cabinet. On the other hand, the mutiny in Fatah is likely to prompt Abbas to soften his conditions for joining the Hamas government. Some of his aides have already made it known that he was no longer demanding that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist as a prerequisite for the formation of the national-unity coalition. As such, the pressure on Abbas from within his party is expected to facilitate the unity initiative, because this is the best way for him to avoid increased demands for reforms. Abbas will find it easier to deal and sit with Hamas than to face serious allegations by grassroots activists in Fatah. Now it remains to be seen whether the Fatah rebels will allow him to get away with it.