"The Palestinians face repression on all sides"
Two months after the escalation between the Israeli leadership and militant Palestinians, the power struggle within the Palestinian leadership is intensifying. In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas is holding on to his rule with increasing force. Hamas, on the other hand, which controls the Gaza Strip, is looking to increase its influence in the Occupied Territories. Khaled Elgindy from the Middle East Institute in Washington explains the pressure Palestinians are under and why Hamas is likely to be the principal beneficiary. Elgindy advised the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah from 2004 to 2009.
Mr. Elgindy, in recent weeks Palestinians have repeatedly protested for an end to President Abbas's term in office. Does this mark a turning point?
Khaled Elgindy: I think so. Mahmoud Abbas has long been unpopular among the Palestinians, but his popularity has plummeted even further in recent months. When he cancelled the parliamentary elections in spring, it disappointed many people. Many Palestinians also regarded him as incompetent and incapable of action during the escalation with Israel in May. For many, this reinforced the feeling that Abbas has lost all legitimacy. Most recently, he ordered massive coercive measures against demonstrators who revolted after the death of activist Nizar Banat. That was the turning point.
At the end of June security forces arrested Abbas critic Nizar Banat and beat him to death. During the protests this triggered, demonstrators were beaten, while many women reported being sexually assaulted. Why is Abbas choosing to be so cruel to his critics right now?
Elgindy: Abbas knows he has forfeited much of his popular support. He has become paranoid over time and feels threatened by anyone who might dispute his leadership, including his colleagues within Fatah. For instance, his rival Nasser al-Qudwa, who had prepared his own list of candidates in the run-up to the elections, was unceremoniously expelled from Fatah.
Is Abbas becoming increasingly authoritarian?
Elgindy: Yes. From what I gather, the human rights situation in the West Bank is bad. Not only are the people constantly bullied by the Israeli army, they also have fewer and fewer rights under their own leadership. The Palestinian Authority has been cracking down on civil society for years, and has repeatedly arrested people for making critical posts on Facebook, for example. Since the murder of Nizar Banat, Abbas’ security forces have ramped up their brutal treatment of activists, arresting and beating them. Abbas has reacted to the protests much as Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak did during the early days of the Egyptian revolution.
Would everything be better if Mahmoud Abbas were gone?
Elgindy: It would at least give the Palestinians the opportunity to form a new political leadership. But that in itself would have advantages and disadvantages. A power struggle would probably break out within Fatah and the umbrella organisation PLO, which could lead to unrest. There will be no political reform while Abbas is in control, however. He rules in a repressive and backward-looking way. Abbas is determined to hold on to power till the end, come what may.
In contrast to Abbas, Hamas is more popular than ever with many Palestinians. During the escalation in May, the Islamists fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, posing as the saviours of the Palestinians. Isn't that a worrying development?
Elgindy: Definitely for the West. It has been 15 years since Hamas won the last election in the Palestinian Territories. Even so, the heads of government in the United States and Europe still have no strategy for dealing with Hamas other than boycotting it. Were Hamas to win the next election or become part of a ruling coalition, they would have no idea what to do.
How should Western leaders deal with Hamas?
Elgindy: They should first acknowledge the reality. Even after years of bombing in Gaza, despite the blockade and international boycott, Hamas still exists and it is not going to disappear. Even if they don't like Hamas, they need to find a way to deal with it on a political level. That does not mean supporting their ideology or their actions. But the political decision-makers must be clear that there can be no military, but only a political solution to the conflict. The West is simply hoping that Abbas will stay in power and that Fatah will continue to rule. But that is unrealistic at a time when Hamas is becoming increasingly popular.
How can the popularity of Hamas be explained?
Elgindy: I don't believe the majority of the people in Gaza love Hamas, its ideology or its actions. The Hamas leaders are hardly democratic, they do not uphold human rights, and they are not good at governing. But the people are trapped, they need Hamas. Israel controls the Gaza Strip by sea, land, and air. Hamas is the only agency that provides services to the people and can, at least sometimes, enforce that border crossings are opened and goods are brought into the Gaza Strip. What's more, Hamas in particular benefits from the failures of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
In what ways?
Elgindy: The forced evictions from Palestinian homes, such as in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, appear to leave the leadership in Ramallah cold. The ongoing construction of illegal settlements and the human rights violations of the Israeli army in the West Bank elicit no response. It has no vision on how to realise an independent Palestinian state. The peace process does not exist. From the point of view of many Palestinians, Hamas is therefore the only group that defends Palestinian interests. And that's a problem.
Crushing death of activist Nizar al-Banat shortly after his arrest by PA is no anomaly. PA systematically arbitrarily arrests & tortures critics/dissidents. Govts that want to help develop rule of law in Palestine should cut ties to security forces that actively undermine it. 1/2 https://t.co/ODWL4Rz80n
— Omar Shakir (@OmarSShakir) June 24, 2021
The feeling of being abandoned on all sides has probably increased for many people in Gaza since the last war.
Elgindy: The Gaza Strip was already considered uninhabitable, but the situation has deteriorated significantly since the bombings in May. A huge number of buildings were destroyed, so tens of thousands of people no longer have any accommodation. The infrastructure also took a major hit: there is hardly any electricity and hardly any water that people can safely drink. The health system has collapsed, which is very worrying, because the number of COVID-19 cases is currently rising massively in the Gaza Strip. The economy has been decimated. Since Hamas and Israel signed the ceasefire agreement, Israel has tightened import restrictions into the Gaza Strip. At the moment there is hardly any food or medicine coming in. I do not know what the Israeli leadership thinks it will achieve by putting such pressure on the Palestinians. If the goal was to drive Hamas out, that didn't work, nor has it weakened Hamas, on the contrary.
Did the war unite the Palestinians?
Elgindy: Absolutely. There has always been great solidarity in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank when Palestinians were attacked in these areas. But in May there was also solidarity among Palestinians on the other side of the 1967 border. This time, many Palestinian residents in Israel also joined the anti-violence protests in Haifa, Jaffa and Nazareth. That had never happened before. It also shows that a generational shift is underway. Many younger Palestinians no longer cling to the two-state solution. They can also imagine a state shared with Israelis in which they would live as equal citizens.
Is such a scenario conceivable with the new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-wing hardliner?
Elgindy: Naftali Bennett is not interested in a two-state solution, or even a one-state solution based on equality between Israelis and Palestinians. He wants to maintain the status quo, which is de facto apartheid: the Palestinians have limited autonomy, but are under the full control of Israel. Bennet does not grant the Palestinians any rights. His government is in cooperation with extremists who are striving, for example, to place Jerusalem under purely Jewish control.
What's next for the Palestinians?
Elgindy: Whichever way you look at it, things are bleak for the Palestinians. They face oppression on all sides: in Gaza by Hamas, in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority, and everywhere by the Israelis. In Israel, around 2,000 Palestinians have been arrested by the authorities since the escalation. The lines of conflict that led to the war in May are still there: evictions, the construction of settlements, the blockade in Gaza. As long as these problems are not resolved, the situation will remain on a knife-edge.
Interview conducted by Andrea Backhaus
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