The Pointlessness of Mahmoud Abbas

By Anchal Vohra

At 2 a.m. on Friday, an 11-day-long cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians came to an end as a cease-fire brokered by Egypt was enforced by both sides. The rockets fired by the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas and Israeli airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip only went silent, however, after claiming 12 Israeli and around 250 Palestinian lives. While the balance of power clearly tilted in Israel’s favor, a superior military power, many Palestinians felt the recent round of conflict brought them a tiny but significant victory since peaceful negotiations have yielded nothing.

For the first time in a long time, Palestinians felt they actively displayed their resentment against Israeli excesses instead of yet again swallowing their pride and merely hoping for the world to take notice. They were united not only in their anger at Israel’s disproportionate use of force on Gazans but also in their support of Hamas’s response to Israel. Palestinians saw the barrage of rockets fired at Israel as a befitting reply on behalf of a disaffected people, not a provocation. As the battle came to an end without either side conceding, thousands of Palestinians celebrated.

Those inside occupied territories as well as those living as Israeli citizens inside Israel, experts said, are pondering the merits of again organizing an extended campaign of armed resistance to intensify their struggle for an independent Palestinian state and against alleged apartheid by Israel. Many of those with whom Foreign Policy spoke said that they were simply tired of waiting for talks or accords to lead to a separate state along the borders as they were defined until 1967—before Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. They said they would support an armed uprising if only to remind Israel that they were not giving up on their right to self-determination and will never accept the status quo that Israel wished to impose on them as fait accompli.

At the heart of their frustration is an obstinate Israel that wants to manage rather than resolve the conflict, but also their own president, Mahmoud Abbas, whom most Palestinians see as ineffective, weak, and at times even bidding for Israeli security over Palestinians’ rights. The recent crisis has furthered his decline, to the detriment of Israel, while Hamas is expected to rise in popularity. Some suspect that more young men could obey Hamas’s call to arms if they feel they have no other options and nothing to lose. Others say the crisis has given an impetus to Abbas’s Fatah—the largest faction in the multiparty Palestine Liberation Organization—and Hamas to unite, reorganize the Palestinian resistance, and show Israel that there would be a cost if it dragged its feet ad infinitum on a resolution acceptable to both sides.

It is hard to say if either will materialize, but at the end of the recent crisis, Israel has achieved little. It succeeded in causing more casualties, but there is no reason to believe that it deterred Hamas from firing rockets again on Israeli cities. Instead, its policies and the needlessly protracted recent conflict weakened Abbas—Israel’s most pragmatic enemy.

Abbas, seen as a moderate, was preferred both by Israel and the United States to replace Yasser Arafat, a controversial figure in the West but a leader who enjoyed undisputed legitimacy in the Palestinian community. After Arafat’s death in 2004, Abbas indeed was chosen as the leader of Fatah, and in December of that year while running for the Palestinian presidency, he called for an end to violence in the Second Intifada, an uprising that had been ongoing since 2000. Ever since, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad based out of Gaza have sporadically fought mini-wars with Israel, the broader approach of the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority—which is considered the representative of the Palestinian people by the international community—has been to engage in talks with Israel and the West to resolve matters peacefully.

The talks have led nowhere, and if there was any hope the Palestinians were clinging to, it was quashed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who relocated the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the disputed holy city, in 2018. As Israeli police stormed into Al-Aqsa Mosque this Ramadan, it proved to be a tipping point. Hamas fired rockets in response, and many Palestinians felt empowered, as if someone, when no one was speaking for them, was doing something. Abbas’s politics of moderation and negotiations, many said, had not been working for years. They said that endlessly negotiating or pleading for negotiations was not only pointless but also humiliating.

Palestinian experts expect that Hamas will rise in the estimation of Palestinians in the wake of the recent conflict and Abbas will lose whatever little credibility he was left with. Ali Jarbawi, a former minister in the government of the Palestinian Authority and a political analyst, said the hopelessness with the defunct peace process among people was palpable and is expected to increase support for Hamas. “I think there would be more support for Hamas’s armed resistance, also because Palestinian moderates like Abbas do not have a good partner in Israel,” Jarbawi said. “Hamas will mobilize more people, yes, sure. But what are our options? There is no other way than armed resistance. There is no hope with negotiations, as they are an endless process. The armed resistance finally gave people some hope.”

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician who serves as the general secretary of a political party called the Palestinian National Initiative and has been a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council since 2006, said that after the recent crisis the Palestinians have found military resistance to be more successful than diplomacy. “The last thing people want to see is the repetition of the past, interim agreements, and such,” Barghouti said. “We need to decide what our political strategy should be and which form of struggle—armed or peaceful—to deploy when. The general consensus is to use popular nonviolent resistance but also military resistance when it is in self-defense.”

Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said Abbas’s lack of credibility was based on his many failings. “He has been overstaying his term limit,” she said, referring to how Abbas has been president since 2005.

“The fact that he presides over [the] Palestinian Authority that since ’94 hasn’t achieved any of its goals and seems to be acting as an impediment to Palestinian liberation,” said Kurd, is another reason people are really fed up with him. When Abbas indefinitely postponed elections, supposed to be held last month after a hiatus of 15 years, many said he was afraid of losing. “On top of that, the Palestinian police stopping people from protesting at the beginning of the crisis in response to what was happening in Jerusalem really pissed people off,” Kurd added.

Barghouti, however, sympathized with Abbas and called him a “victim” of Israelis and Americans, a man who believed their promises and put all his energy into making peace through negotiations only. “Israelis failed him, and the international community failed him,” he said. He added that Abbas was now under pressure to establish a unified leadership: “We have already sent letters to all 14 political parties to meet, unite, and discuss a strategy.”

Yet others say that 85-year-old Abbas has nothing to worry about and will be president for life, as no one has been groomed to take over or challenge him. Mustafa Barghouti’s distant cousin Marwan Barghouti, who is seen as a leader of the First and Second Intifadas, is a strong challenger, and according to an opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, would have garnered more votes than Abbas if the elections had happened. But he is rotting in an Israeli prison, condemned to serve to five life sentences plus 40 years. There is also Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian who is believed to have played a role in Israel’s normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates and is in fact based in the UAE. He is backed by the Emiratis and was reportedly backed by the Trump administration too, but he has little legitimacy inside Palestinian territories. Hamas is proscribed as a terrorist organization by many countries including the United States and can never be seen as a representative of the Palestinian people by the international community. Even among the Palestinians, while its popularity might rise, there are still enough who criticize it.

Yara spoke to Foreign Policy by telephone from a street in Gaza that had been severely pounded. She feared a threat to her security and requested anonymity. “The fact that Hamas responded—regardless of how effective it is—Palestinians feel someone speaking for them,” she said. “But that does not mean we want to vote for Hamas or be governed by them. People don’t want Hamas, because it’s a religious party.”

It remains to be seen if more Palestinians will actually opt for an armed struggle or if as anger subsidies the energy will simply fizzle out. While Hamas’s ratings might spike, many Palestinians are keenly aware of the group’s shortcomings and oppose its politics. Nonetheless, their support for Hamas’s rockets showed just how despondent they are with diplomacy and how desperate they are for a change of course.