Why Mahmoud Abbas and his team must go

PA President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)

Kamel Hawwash

Middle East Eye  /  February 14, 2022

Central Council meeting showed, yet again, that our leaders are unaccountable to the people.

Palestinian political leaders must back away from their illegitimate positions and stop trying to take the Palestinian people for fools.

At a meeting last week of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s central council in Ramallah, President Mahmoud Abbas apparently thought Palestinians could be fooled into believing that the purpose of the meeting was to address critical national issues. In reality, its purpose was merely to fill vacant chairs within the PLO.

The vacancies included the position of speaker for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the legislative arm of the PLO. Following the recent retirement of Speaker Salim Zanoun, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) voted to appoint in his place Rawhi Fattouh, who formerly served as speaker for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and briefly as interim Palestinian president in 2004-05.

The PCC also voted to appoint Palestinian Authority (PA) stalwart Hussein al-Sheikh as secretary general of the PLO’s executive committee, replacing the late Saeb Erekat.

Both Fattouh and Sheikh are controversial figures. Fattouh was once accused of smuggling thousands of mobile phones across the Jordanian border, charges he denied; and Sheikh, as head of the PA’s General Authority of Civil Affairs, has a close working relationship with Israel and is widely believed to harbour ambitions to succeed Abbas.

Legitimacy questioned

The appointment process itself raises important questions. Although the Palestinian leadership would argue that the PCC was delegated all the powers of the PNC, I believe the speaker should have been elected directly by the latter body, rather than by its subordinate.

In 2018, many questioned the legitimacy of a chaotic meeting in which the PNC filled a host of vacancies through a non-democratic process. During a recent webinar, Nasser al-Qudwa, the nephew of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said that while he was present at the meeting, he does not recall how that process was agreed upon. 

In the run-up to last week’s meeting, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) called the legitimacy of the PCC into question and announced they would not attend the session. Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned from the PLO’s executive committee in 2020, also boycotted the meeting, alongside a number of other high-profile figures.

Ahead of the meeting, groups opposing the current political state of affairs, including the National Campaign for Rebuilding the PLO (of which I am a founding member) and the Popular Movement for Change, launched a joint petition insisting on elections to the PNC to ensure real representation for 14 million Palestinians worldwide. They also held protests in Ramallah and Gaza.

Preserving the status quo

The PCC’s final communique amounted to a rehash of previous statements, including calling for an end to security cooperation with Israel, and urging the international community to implement long-standing resolutions to end the occupation. It came a day after Israeli forces killed three members of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus – an operation many Palestinians believe would not have been possible without ongoing Israeli-Palestinian security coordination.

Abbas and his immediate circle might have yet again succeeded in using the PCC to legitimize their actions. In terms of key political issues, such as the leadership’s cooperation with Israel, Palestinians do not expect any real changes to follow. The status quo suits both Israel and the PA. The PLO exists mainly to rubber-stamp Abbas’s controversial decisions.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP have already come out to reject the PCC process and to call for the formation of an interim PNC to reclaim the PLO from the ruling elite. Amid growing discontent with the status quo, Palestinians know they must unite not only to resist Israel, but also to reclaim their own institutions.

A people who have remained on their land and resisted occupation for more than seven decades can surely reclaim their cause from an illegitimate leadership. Globally, Palestinians need to unite to pressure the current leadership to make way for the next generation, and to push western states to stop supporting the status quo, which gives Israel the cover it needs.

Such calls for change can bring significant pressure on Abbas and his team to step down – and this movement will continue long past the PCC meeting.

Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham; he is chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a founding member of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC