by Gerry Foley – February, 2005
As expected, the new president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), moved immediately after his election on Jan. 9 against the militants while making overtures to Israel. He had attempted to do this before, during his brief sojourn in the premiership of the PA, but had failed.
The leadership of Al Fatah, which has long dominated the Palestinian movement, obviously concurred with this perspective. They exerted pressure to make sure that Abu Mazen got a commanding majority, to give him the authority to pursue his course. They forced Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned Fatah leader who could have put up a serious challenge to Abu Mazen, to withdraw from the race.
The PA issued an order Jan. 27 forbidding civilians from carrying weapons, and Abu Mazen signaled an assault on the militants by his appointment of a new minister of the interior. The liberal Zionist daily Haaretz noted in its Jan. 27 issue: “The PA leadership have also decided to name Nasser Yousef as the new Palestinian interior minister, a post in charge of security forces, a senior Palestinian official said. ”Yousef was in charge of cracking down on militants in the 1990s, and his appointment would send a clear signal that the leadership intends to act against violent groups.”
Abu Mazen’s first move after his election was to deploy PA security forces in northern Gaza to try to stop Palestinian militants from attacking Israeli border posts and firing rockets at Israeli towns on the other side of the border.
In the Jan. 27 Washington Post, Mohammed Daraghmeh wrote: “Adding to a new wave of optimism for peace after four years of fighting, Palestinian leader
Mahmoud Abbas won rare praise from [Israeli Premier] Sharon and visiting U.S. envoy William Burns for his efforts to halt violence. The two sides are trying to arrange a Sharon-Abbas summit in the next two weeks.
“’I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us,’ Sharon said
in a Tel Aviv speech Thursday evening.
“’If the Palestinians act in a comprehensive fashion to fight terror, violence, and incitement,’ Sharon said, ‘we can move forward to the process of implementing the “road map,” and then we can coordinate various activities with them regarding the disengagement plan.’”
Abu Mazen clearly feels stronger today to pursue his policy of reconciliation with Israel. But he failed to gain the sort of mandate that he and the Al Fatah
leadership hoped he would. He got 63.3 percent of the valid votes cast, short of the 70 percent that Al Jazeereh’s correspondent Khalid Amayreh wrote that Al Fatah had hoped for.
Moreover, Al Fatah had needed a strong vote for Abu Mazen to strengthen its hand for the upcoming local and parliamentary elections, after relative eclipse in the recent municipal elections. Al Fatah was dismayed by the unexpectedly strong showing by its principal rival, Hamas, which, along with the other Islamist organizations in the Palestinian communities, is identified with a position of intransigent struggle against Israel.
Hamas called for a boycott of the PA election, but a number of independent Islamist candidates got about 5 percent of the vote. The second largest vote, about 20 percent, went to Mustafa Barghouti, an organizer of nonviolent protests against the Zionists and a former member of the Communist Party. He was generally seen as a left alternative.
Amayreh pointed out that Abu Mazen’s majority really only represented about 33 percent of the potential Palestinian voters; 38 percent of those registered to
vote stayed away from the polls, and of those who voted, 7 percent cast blank ballots.
In the wake of the PA election, Haaretz published an interview with Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which had predicted the vote within a range of less than one percent. Shikaki noted the weakness of Abu Mazen’s mandate and that Palestinian support for the armed struggle against Israel remained high, but he also claimed that the trend was going against armed confrontation. These are undoubtedly the two sides of the equation.
The Palestinians are not ready to give up, but the forms of the armed struggle have not achieved anything other than psychological compensation for the
suffering and terrible losses that the Israeli forces have inflicted on the Palestinians and their organizations. This contradiction obviously cannot be
sustained forever. The Palestinians will have to find more effective forms of struggle or eventually accept some sort of reconciliation with Israel.
Nonetheless, Palestinian determination to fight the Zionist aggression and repression remains high, especially in the Gaza strip, which has suffered most
from Israeli attacks. That was demonstrated by the Gaza local elections on Jan. 27, in which Hamas won 76 of the 119 local council seats up for a vote. Voter participation was over 80 percent. Hamas presented its success as a victory for the militant resistance.
The Jan. 28 Haaretz quoted Hamas spokesperson Muhir al-Masri’s response to the vote as follows: “Our people have a consensus on the choice of jihad and resistance, and the election has underscored that concept.”
It is clear that the political situation among the Palestinian people remains fluid, and new alignments and militant new methods may emerge. Abu Mazen’s victory may be as short lived as his premiership was.