The Palestinian people continue to resist Israel’s oppressive and expansionist policies and actions across historic Palestine, from Jerusalem and the West Bank, to the Negev and Gaza. But, regrettably, their struggle for rights, freedoms and democracy is not only against Israel. They are also in a struggle against their own incompetent and illegitimate leaders who are desperately clinging to power.
Indeed, 84-year-old Mahmoud Abbas was elected as the President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) for a four-year term some 17 years ago, but he is still in office. Despite not facing the ballot box since January 2005, he has managed to concentrate almost all political power in Palestine in his hands. Today, he is not only the President of the PNA and thus the State of Palestine, but also the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – the internationally recognised representative of Palestinians across the world – and the Fatah Party.
The Palestinian people have long been frustrated with the president’s refusal to hold elections and have considered his leadership illegitimate. In January 2021, in response to growing criticism and calls for his resignation, Abbas announced elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (the legislature of the PNA which Abbas dissolved in 2018), the presidency of the PNA, and the Palestine National Council (PNC, the legislative body of the PLO). But just a few months later, in April 2021, he once again cancelled all three elections, despite more than 90 percent of eligible voters in the occupied territories already having registered to exercise their democratic right.
Abbas tried to blame the cancellation on Israel’s refusal to allow elections in occupied East Jerusalem. The real reason, however, was clear to most Palestinians: divisions within Abbas’s Fatah party. Indeed, three different Legislative Council lists had emerged from within the party, and thus there was no guarantee that either faction could win a free and fair election.
Abbas’ U-turn on elections deepened the Palestinian people’s anger and frustration with his leadership. The murder of outspoken PNA critic and Legislative Council candidate Nizar Banat by Palestinian security forces in June 2021, and extreme use of force against protesters calling for accountability for those responsible, meanwhile, provided further proof for the illegitimate leadership’s growing authoritarian tendencies.
Beyond its refusal to hold elections and apparent human rights violations, the leadership in Ramallah also attracted the ire of the Palestinian people for a series of highly unpopular policies. Indeed, Abbas insists on following policies that the Palestinian masses overwhelmingly reject, such as engaging in security coordination with Israel and holding friendly face-to-face meetings with Israeli officials such as Defence Minister Benny Gantz – a war criminal who personally led Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in 2014.
The calls for Abbas’s resignation are getting louder by the day. But Palestinian demands for a legitimate, inclusive and democratic leadership that can stand up to Israel are still being ignored by those in positions of power in Ramallah.
Today, Abbas is not only refusing to retire and pave the way for a more capable leader who has the support of the Palestinian people to take his place, but he also appears to be plotting to set up a succession plan that would ensure the continuation of this undemocratic and unpopular regime after his demise.
He has called a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council (PCC, an intermediary body between the PNC and the PLO Executive Committee) on February 6 and 7 to achieve this goal. The meeting’s agenda, which has not been made public but only sent to invitees, consists of 12 items. While many of the items appear to focus on immediate challenges facing the Palestinian people, there are a few that are clear attempts to tacitly further the Abbas leadership’s political ambitions.
The agenda items relating to the filling of PLO Executive Committee positions and the position of the Speaker of the PNC are a particular cause for serious concern.
The vacancies in the PLO Executive Committee arose from the death of the previous General Secretary, Saeb Erekat, and the resignation of Hanan Ashrawi in protest at the PNA’s continued security coordination with Israel. The vacancy of the PNC Speaker, meanwhile, arose from Saleem Zanoon’s recent decision to retire.
These positions should be filled by the PNC. But at its last meeting in Ramallah in 2018, the PNC delegated its powers to the PCC between its meeting. The PCC originally had merely a monitoring role and was never designed to fill important executive and legislative positions in the Palestinian leadership. But with this sleight of hand, the PCC has been given the authority to singlehandedly appoint the speaker to a parliament representing some 14 million Palestinians around the world, as well as two members to the highest executive body of the PLO. And it is looking all but certain that, if the meeting of the PCC goes ahead, all three appointees will be from the highest echelons of Abbas’s Fatah Party.
Indeed, at its recent meeting, the Fatah Central Council agreed to nominate Hussein Al Sheikh, head of the PNA’s General Authority of Civil Affairs and member of the Fatah Central Committee, to fill Erekat’s place on the Executive Committee. Al Sheikh is part of Abbas’s inner circle. He was in attendance at the recent controversial Abbas-Gantz meeting and has close relationships with many other Israeli officials. It is highly suspected that he is being groomed to inherit Abbas’s various roles and emerge as the next Palestinian leader. The Fatah Central Council also nominated the former speaker of the now-dissolved Palestine Legislative Council and Fatah heavyweight Rawhi Fattuh for the position of Speaker of the PNC.
There is, therefore, growing concern over and opposition to the holding of a PCC meeting in the coming week. While some of the agenda items promise some important discussions on urgent problems faced by the PLO’s leading institutions, Palestinians do not expect any concrete action plan that would help the desperate situation of the nation to emerge from the meeting. Furthermore, there is much reason to resist Abbas and the Fatah leadership’s attempts to further consolidate power through illegitimate appointments to the PLO Executive Council and the PNC.
Short of an uprising, which may still happen as the living conditions and political freedoms of Palestinians continue to deteriorate rapidly, the only way for the people to loosen the current leadership’s grip on their leading institutions is to resist ploys like the upcoming PCC meeting.
This is why the National Campaign for Rebuilding the PLO and other groups, including the People’s Alliance for Change, came together to oppose the meeting. Other groups and influential figures should join us in this fight and help us increase the pressure on the Abbas leadership to step aside. To achieve this, we need to continue to work together as Palestinians in historic Palestine and the diaspora, beyond the PCC meeting.
If we can stop this meeting from going ahead, or at least raise more awareness about why some of its agenda items are harmful to the Palestinian cause and democracy, we can pave the way for real, meaningful change.
This means going back to the mother organisation, the PLO, and rebuilding it to be fit for purpose in the 21st century. Rather than allowing the PCC to make illegitimate and politically motivated appointments, we should immediately hold a worldwide PNC election, and allow this new legislative to elect a new Executive Committee made up of the next generation of Palestinian leaders who can stand up to the occupiers and deliver the people their rights. There are undoubtedly difficulties in holding these elections among all eligible voters, but we cannot continue to allow the current leadership to hide behind this excuse any longer.
Palestine is ready for change. Palestine is ready for democracy, and we should send the message to the current leadership that it is high time for them to step aside.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.