It’s hard to believe that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas enjoyed last week’s Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha – a holiday he often loves to spend with his family, especially the grandchildren.
Just before the feast began, the first reports about an imminent truce agreement between Abbas’s rivals in Hamas and Israel started appearing in various Arab media outlets.
The reports claimed that the Egyptians were close to reaching a long-term truce agreement between Israel and Hamas and other Gaza-based Palestinian factions. For Abbas, this was bad news, and he immediately convened a meeting of his senior officials and advisers in Ramallah to discuss the repercussions of any truce deal.
At the outset, Abbas was unhappy with the fact that the Egyptians, together with the UN, Qatar and Turkey, were acting as mediators between Hamas and Israel. For him, Hamas is an illegitimate party that seized control over the Gaza Strip (in 2007) through a violent “coup.”
In the past few days, Abbas and his senior Fatah officials have repeatedly stated that Hamas does not have any official or legal status and, as such, is not authorized to conduct any type of negotiations with Israel or reach any agreement with Israel or any other party.
Abbas and his senior representatives relayed this position to the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Turks and Nickolay Mladenov, special UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, who has managed in the past few months to convince both Israel and Hamas to avoid an all-out military confrontation between them.
A Palestinian official in Ramallah said Abbas used “harsh language” to warn all those who were mediating between Hamas and Israel.
“Hamas is a gang and its leaders are thugs and thieves,” the official quoted Abbas as telling an Egyptian diplomat. “We will not allow anyone to turn Hamas into a legitimate government in the Gaza Strip, even if that means a direct confrontation with our brothers in Egypt and Qatar.”
As part of his effort to undermine Hamas and prevent it from signing any agreement with Israel, Abbas first flew to Qatar, where he reportedly warned Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani that the PA would not accept any deal that is signed “behind our back.” But the Qataris, according to Palestinian sources, rejected Abbas’s threat and advised him to lift the economic sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip last year and to agree to the formation of a Palestinian unity government with Hamas.
Qatar’s position did not come as a surprise to Abbas, especially considering that the oil-rich emirate has long been providing political and financial support to Hamas and many residents of the Gaza Strip.
But Abbas seems to be much more worried about the role the Egyptians are playing in the indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Abbas fears that the Egyptians have taken a strategic decision to accept Hamas as the de facto government in the Gaza Strip, after reaching the conclusion that the Hamas-Fatah crisis cannot be solved in the near future.
Each time the Egyptians invite top Hamas officials to Cairo, Abbas and several PA and Fatah officials make it known that they are extremely disturbed by what they perceive as Egypt’s effort to “legitimize” Hamas.
Abbas believes that his arch-rival, deposed Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, is responsible for the apparent rapprochement between Cairo and Hamas. Dahlan, who is based in the United Arab Emirates, has very close ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and with some top Hamas leaders. It’s widely believed in Ramallah that Dahlan was the one who persuaded Sisi and the Egyptian authorities to engage in direct talks with Hamas over a number of issues, especially a truce with Israel and security measures along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
It’s no secret that Abbas hates Dahlan and considers him a big threat. And it’s no secret that Dahlan despises Abbas and has been waging a campaign to discredit him in the past few years. Dahlan, a former security commander in the Gaza Strip, has political ambitions and wants to return to the Palestinian political arena. He is now hoping that with the help of Hamas and Egypt, he will at least be permitted to make a political comeback through the Gaza Strip (Dahlan fled the West Bank in 2011 after PA security forces raided his Ramallah home and confiscated documents and computers and later arrested a number of his loyalists).
Dahlan has not been able to enter the Gaza Strip since the violent Hamas takeover of the coastal enclave in 2007, which brought about the collapse of the PA and its security forces there. For many years, he was wanted by Hamas because of his security force’s role in arresting, torturing and killing several Hamas members. In recent years, however, Dahlan seems to have patched up his differences with Hamas, which now considers him a lifesaver, thanks to his strong connections with Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other international parties.
This is precisely what is worrying Abbas and his officials in the PA and Fatah. An alliance between Hamas and Dahlan that is backed by key Arab countries is the worst nightmare for the Ramallah-based leaders.
SOME OF Abbas’s top officials this week even went as far as claiming that the truce talks in Cairo were in the context of US President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-announced plan for peace in the Middle East.
They argue that Trump’s unseen plan is nothing but an “Israeli-American conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian cause and separate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.” In other words, Abbas and the PA claim that Hamas, with the help of the US and Israel, is seeking to establish a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip – turning the PA into a self-rule government with limited control over parts of the West Bank.
Like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, Abbas is a man who strongly believes in conspiracy theories. Arafat used to claim that Hamas was working with Jewish extremists against his regime and the peace process. Arafat also used to tell visitors that Israel was behind the assassination of former Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who was gunned down in a Jerusalem hotel by terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 2001.
Abbas is convinced that the whole world is conspiring against him – the Israelis, the Americans, several Arab countries, some Europeans and many Palestinians. The 83-year-old president is nervous and is wary of every criticism leveled against him. He is convinced that too many powers have come together to topple his regime and “destroy the Palestinian national project,” as he often likes to describe it.
As soon as the Muslim feast ended last weekend, an anxious Abbas dispatched three senior Fatah officials on an urgent mission to Cairo, to try to thwart any agreement between Hamas and Israel. The Fatah officials who met with senior Egyptian intelligence officers warned that a truce deal would prompt the PA government to cut off all financial aid to the Gaza Strip. They also warned that a truce deal would serve the interests of Israel and the US administration in “solidifying” the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But the Egyptians do not seem to be all that impressed with Abbas’s attempt to scare them and dissuade them from engineering a deal between Hamas and Israel. The head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Gen. Abbas Kamel, is said to have refused to meet with the Fatah officials who came to Cairo to deliver Abbas’s warning.
On Wednesday night, Abbas phoned Sisi and asked that Cairo focus on the issue of Palestinian unity and not the proposed truce with Israel.
Abbas’s latest argument is that ending the Hamas-Fatah dispute should be the No. 1 priority of the Palestinians and should come before any truce deal. Otherwise, Abbas says, the truce deal with result in the creation of a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.
But Abbas’s conditions for reconciliation with Hamas are making it impossible to reach any deal. This week, Hamas leaders again reiterated their rejection of most of Abbas’s demands, particularly the one concerning surrendering Hamas weapons to the PA government.
The Egyptians and the Qataris are well aware that the chances of ending the Hamas-Fatah dispute are zero at this stage. This is why the two Arab countries have decided to push hard for a truce agreement between Hamas and Israel. Egypt stands to benefit from such a deal because it would bring some stability along its border with the Gaza Strip and enable the Egyptian security forces to devote more time and effort to combating Islamic terrorist groups in Sinai.
As for Qatar, a truce agreement would keep its Hamas allies in power in the Gaza Strip, allowing the emirate to continue meddling in the internal affairs of the Palestinians and the Middle East peace process.
Of course, Hamas also stands to benefit from such a truce, as well as Israel, the US, the UN and everyone else – except Abbas and his PA.
For Abbas, this is a disaster that needs to be prevented, as he faces growing isolation in the local and international arenas. If he fails to foil the truce talks, Abbas will have to face the reality that he is no longer the president of all Palestinians, certainly not those living in the Gaza Strip, and that his power does not extend beyond certain parts of the West Bank.
A truce deal between Hamas and Israel, he fears, would turn him into the “mayor” of Ramallah, whose survival would depend on the presence of the IDF in the West Bank. This would be a blow not only to Abbas, but also to his Fatah faction.