The PNC meeting was ‘much ado about nothing’

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/5/2018

 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd L) makes a speech during the 23rd session of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah, West Bank on 30 April 2018 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
After a 22-year lull, the highest Palestinian legislative authority of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Council (PNC), finally met in Ramallah for its 23rd session. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faced severe criticism for holding the meeting in Ramallah, which remains under occupation, thus excluding many members and figures who would not be allowed into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) by Israel, or who faced arrest and even assassination if they attempted to enter.
The PNC consists of 765 members, including 198 independents, 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), 49 representing Fatah, 98 representing other factions and a whole multitude of members representing different Palestinian organisations.

 

The meeting was held in the smart Ahmad Shukeiri Hall in Ramallah, named after the first chairman of the PLO; it was filled to the rafters when Abbas was in attendance over four long days. The front row, reserved for the leadership, looked as familiar as ever; it lacked any significant representation of women, non-Fatah faction representatives or young blood. The 23rd session of the PNC was named the “Jerusalem and protecting legitimacy round” in reference to the dangers Jerusalem faces and the need to renew the legitimacy of a number of the PLO institutions.

The meeting was boycotted by three major Palestinian factions — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — and a number of independent figures, including well-known members like Dr Salman Abu Sitta, Abdel Bari Atwan and Dr Anis Kassem.

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor's 'Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation' conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor’s ‘Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation’ conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

The meeting kicked off on 30 April with chaotic scenes as attendance was established by every name of the hundreds of existing members being read out and recorded as present or absent; various lists of replacements were placed in front of the ageing Chairman of the PNC, Saleem Al-Zanoun, adding to the confusion. The session concluded with a proclamation that the meeting was quorate, made to rapturous applause.

What followed was another rambling speech by Abbas lasting for 1 hour 48 minutes. Listening to it, I struggled to identify anything significant to take away with me, which was astonishing given the gravity of the situation the Palestinians face. Nor was there anything to distinguish it from his last speech to another PLO institution, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) in January. While supposed to be reading his speech, Abbas went off script regularly, which is not a good idea when every word is scrutinised by friend and foe alike, especially when it comes to his attempts to present his version of history to an international audience. His explanation of the reason for the Holocaust drew almost universal condemnation, including some from the Israeli Prime Minister, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and the editorial board of the New York Times. While a more accurate translation of what he said gives context to his remarks, he should really have learnt by now that venturing into this area provides an open goal for accusations of anti-Semitism and those want to quote him out of context.

Attendees listened to speech after speech from leaders, members and guests representing various organisations and over 30 friendly states. The general message was one of support for the Palestinian cause, rejection of Trump’s US Embassy move and an emphasis on the importance of holding the PNC meeting. However, it was the many conversations, sometimes heated, taking place behind the scenes about possible names for membership of the PNC, PLO Executive Committee and the PCC that drove the real business of the meeting.

The closing session took place in the late hours of day four, concluding with a shorter speech by Abbas and the emerging decisions of the PNC. Abbas was “re-elected” by proclamation as President of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The PNC Chairman reminded the meeting how decisions are reached in the PNC, by standing up and applauding. There is no ballot. This drew heavy criticism from Nabil Amer, a former PLO Ambassador to Egypt, who had wanted to stand for the Executive Committee. He was initially told not to speak by Abbas but was eventually allowed to say a few words by the PNC Chairman. He simply reiterated his intention to struggle for decisions to be taken through a ballot and called on the PNC to hold Legislative Council and Presidential elections without delay.

Amer’s remarks were only heard after the PNC agreed to Abbas’s list of members of the Executive Committee, which he claimed had been agreed with “nationalistic factions”. Fifteen names were presented, including seven former members and eight new people. Those familiar to followers of Palestinian politics were Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi. Abbas explained that the Committee had kept three seats vacant to allow the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which boycotted the meeting, to join the PNC. In the case of Hamas, he conditioned this on the movement agreeing to abide by existing agreements. “We don’t want to see them out of our national unity and we don’t like exclusion,” he claimed.

The PNC was also asked to approve membership of the smaller PCC, which was to take on the terms of reference of the PNC due to the difficulties it faces in meeting annually, as it should. Presenting the names, the newly-installed Executive Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad, known for his role in negotiating reconciliation with Hamas, stressed the great efforts made to ensure the widest possible geographic and factional representation on the PCC.

Earlier, 35 PNC members urged Abbas to end the sanctions he had imposed on the Gaza Strip since May 2017 to force Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, to hand over power to the Palestinian Authority. Abbas skated around the subject but confirmed that the April salaries for those on the PA payroll in Gaza would be paid immediately and that the lack of payment had been due to a “technical hitch” and was not intended to punish the besieged workers.

In his closing remarks, Abbas took a swipe at those who boycotted the meeting held under occupation. “When we said [that we will] meet in this beautiful Ahmad Shukeiri Hall we are in our country, in our homeland not under the pikes of the occupier,” he insisted. “Yes, there is an occupation, but we can say what we want here. I am not prepared to go and seek a place to meet in an Arab country or any other when I can meet on my land.”

The closing statement of the 23rd PNC meeting is long but uninspiring. It reiterates the decisions of the PCC held in January, which remain un-actioned, including suspending recognition of Israel until it recognises Palestine and the end of security cooperation with the occupying power.

Much will now be written about the PNC meeting, its legitimacy, operation and decisions. Those who questioned its legitimacy will not change their stance, but what can they do to oppose them? The significant Palestinian factions which boycotted the gathering are unlikely to suddenly accept the invitation to re-join a body that they consider illegitimate. Healing the pain of the division has been taken off the table. Fatah and the small number of individuals around the Palestinian President will continue to operate without wide consultation and take crucial decisions on issues facing the Palestinian people. There is no accountability for the actions of the Palestinian leadership including, the Palestinian National Authority. Has it delivered any meaningful improvement to the lives of Palestinians or moved them closer to achieving their legitimate rights? Can refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria see an end to their exile? Are the Palestinians in the diaspora represented in the PLO’s institutions in the proportion that they should be, or are they simply a number to call upon when the scale of the suffering of the Palestinians since the Nakba needs to be highlighted? Sadly, the reality is that there is no new emerging strategy to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians or to oppose the Trump juggernaut as it implements Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s diktats on “peace” through what is touted as the “deal of the century”.

The 23rd meeting of the PNC has come and gone and will in my view be remembered as one of the least significant events in Palestinian history; it was definitely “much ado about nothing”. However, Abbas pleased the meeting by announcing that Palestinian child prisoner Ahed Tamimi, convicted for slapping an Israeli soldier, will be made an honorary member of the Council. We might have to wait a little longer, but perhaps a President Ahed Tamimi or a member of her generation will one day take up the baton and lead the Palestinians to justice, freedom and equality.

 

مقابلة: المجلس الوطني الفلسطيني يبدأ أعماله على وقع خلافات

شاركت في برنامج أحداث وأصداء غلى قناة المغاربية بتاريخ ٣٠/٤/٢٠١٨

Reconciliation or permanent division for Palestinians?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 1/4/2018

The takeaway message on reconciliation is that it has been kicked into the long grass.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 1. (AFP)
At an impasse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 1. (AFP)

The Palestinian people are reeling from two explosions that effectively demolished hopes for Fatah/Hamas reconciliation. One was a real explosion that targeted the Palestinian prime minister’s convoy as it entered Gaza and the other was a political grenade that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas lobbed into the mix during a speech to the Palestinian leadership shortly after that incident.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s car escaped the attack but vehicles at the back of the convoy were damaged. Hamdallah went on to inaugurate a water treatment plant as planned and then left the besieged strip to Ramallah. Accusations followed as to who was responsible for the attack. The Palestinian Authority immediately blamed Hamas, which opened an investigation into the attack but denied responsibility for it.

It is true that Hamas is in charge of security in the Gaza Strip following the failure of repeated attempts at reconciliation to extend the jurisdiction of the Hamdallah government over Gaza. It is, therefore, embarrassing for Hamas that this incident happened under its watch. However, it is not immediately obvious what Hamas would gain from attacking the PA prime minister.

Hamas released a video of its investigation. Suspects Anas Abu Khousa and Abdulhadi Alash’hab died during attempts to capture them. Another suspect was injured and was hospitalised. Two security officers died in the confrontation.

The Hamas video includes confessions by others saying they helped Abu Khousa plan and carry out the attack and concludes with the assertion that the investigation revealed that the bomb was primed a day before Hamas Security Chief Tawfiq Abu Nuaim was informed of Hamdallah’s impending visit. While it did not accuse either the PA or Israel of orchestrating the attack, the video asked: “Who informed the cell of the PM’s visit?”

Abbas did not wait for the outcome of Hamas’s investigation, opting to address the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah with what was a truly explosive speech. Abbas castigated Hamas for the attack and for scuppering reconciliation efforts that have come to a halt.

Abbas claimed that the PA had engaged with reconciliation efforts since October 12, 2017, but “was shocked to have achieved nothing in relation to enabling the government to take control in Gaza.”

He claimed the attack was part of a “plan” to separate Gaza from the motherland to create the “state of Gaza” and that this was always a US and Israeli goal, which started with the coup in 2007. Now US President Donald Trump wants to implement this alongside taking Jerusalem and the refugee issues off the negotiating table, making his “ultimate deal” unacceptable to Abbas.

He claimed the recent humanitarian summit at the White House on Gaza was part of the Trump plan.

Abbas asserted that, following intensive meetings in Egypt, Hamas had said it would implement conditions set by the PA in previous agreements but said Hamas reneged when it told the PA that “security is yours above ground but ours below.” This was a reference to what Abbas claimed Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar meant when promising to build tunnels and manufacture more rockets in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas gave Hamas an ultimatum: Either the PA takes control of everything — in accordance with the agreements — and therefore responsibility for Gaza or Hamas can keep control but that means taking full responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

Abbas concluded with a promise that he will take all “national, legal and financial actions necessary to protect the national project” without outlining what these would be. He looked angry, tired and short of ideas.

The takeaway message on reconciliation is that it has been kicked into the long grass. It may even be the case that 2018 will see what Palestinians always hoped is a temporary division between their two biggest factions become permanent. This does not augur well for Palestinians in general and for the 2 million besieged residents of Gaza, in particular. The future is bleak.

قطاع غزة… من المستفيد من مخاولة إغتيال رئيس حكومة الوفاق الفلسطينية؟

مشاركتي في برنامج أحداث وأصداء على قناة المغاربية بتاريخ 14 مارس 2018

Palestinian leadership should retire gracefully or be removed by the people

First published by the Middle East Eye on 19/1/2018

The cause and the sacrifices made by millions of Palestinians deserve much more than the current leadership have or can achieve

During the last Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah, President Mahmoud Abbas made reference to football when describing some of the Palestinian achievements in recent years.

He reminded the audience that in 1934 Egypt denied the Palestinian team a place in the football World Cup after beating them by one goal to nil. He further proudly reminded them that in 2009 Palestine was ranked 179th in FIFA’s world ranking.

It, however, jumped to 80th place in the recently released ranking while Israel was in 98th”despite all the efforts they have made”, he said.

While Abbas attributed this achievement to the great efforts of the Palestinian Football Association he, nonetheless, added that it was because sport is not politicised and that anyone who wants to participate can do so regardless of which political faction – if any – he/she belonged to. He quipped that “one day we might even rank higher than America”.

His reference to football was interesting but in a different sense.

The analogy

Could the Palestinian leadership learn any lessons from the beautiful game? If Palestine was a team in one of the English leagues, how would its leadership win regularly, move up each league, be promoted and then win the ultimate prize of the championship or, to complete the analogy, its freedom and independence?

In football, as in politics, one needs to create winning teams, both on and off the pitch. Football clubs are in the market for talent, buying the best players around but also growing their own. The pressures of the modern game are such that they cannot afford to stand still, particularly as they see teams around them strengthen their positions.

If we take the 23-year period since the Oslo Accords, we find the Palestinians moving further and further away from their goal, but unlike an English football team which would be constantly strategising, buying and selling players and changing their coaching team, the Palestinian team has been a permanent fixture.

It is time the Palestinians said loudly that the current leadership has become part of the problem

Abbas, and his most senior colleagues, are in their late seventies or eighties – just look at the images from the PCC conference and you will struggle to see a young person either at the top table or in the front row.

Within a match, a football coach will start with a formation – and what may be his best team – but will change it if things are not going according to plan. He will sometimes play a defensive formation and at other times an attacking formation.

He will rest players and bring young players on to “blood” them, thus helping to ensure freshness and continuity. The Palestinian team has stagnated for decades.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting of the PLO executive committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah in April 2015 (AFP)

Alex Ferguson had 27 highly successful years at Manchester United. He built a base – initially then a winning team – but his 13 English Premier League trophies were not won with the same team but three or four teams.

Many of the key players in the Palestinian team are still there 24 years after Oslo.

A leadership in waiting

If the argument for keeping the Palestinian “old guard” is because of their knowledge and experience then a close look at the opposite side, Israel, destroys that argument. The “old guard” in Israel have largely gone, making way for “fresh talents” such as Bennett, Shaked, Hotovely and Danon.

They happen to be extremists and it may be that in the long run their leadership leads Israel to isolation and disaster but that is a different story. They have been given a chance to develop their political skills at the highest level.

Where is the next crop of Palestinian leaders going to come from? Can anyone name five that are gaining in prominence? Surely a people that number nearly 14 million in historic Palestine, the refugee camps and the diaspora, a highly educated people, have produced a leadership in waiting.

At 62, Saeb Erekat is one of the younger members of the Palestinian “old guard”. He has been involved in negotiations since the Madrid conference and has been the Palestinian chief negotiator since 1995. He has repeatedly resigned but his resignation has never been accepted by President Abbas.

The Palestinian leadership needs drastic changes to meet the challenges ahead. The cause and the sacrifices made by millions of Palestinians deserve much more than the current leadership have or can achieve.

While it is part of Middle Eastern culture to respect elders and to hold those who made huge sacrifices in the past for the cause in high regard, the time comes when they either retire gracefully or are removed by the Palestinian people.

Palestinian female football players at a qualifying match against Thailand during the Women’s Asian Cup in the West Bank town of al-Ram in April 2017 (AFP)

It is true to say that the task facing any Palestinian leadership, young or old, experienced or not, is massive. They face a highly organised, strategising foe that has been working for over a century to take their homeland, to keep it and over time to eject them all from it. Make no mistake about Israel’s ultimate aim.

It is time the Palestinians said loudly that the current leadership has become part of the problem. They largely act as if Palestine has been liberated, a state with ministers, ministries and the trappings of power when in fact even Abbas needs permits from Israel to move from one city to another and when the Palestinian prime minister can be stopped for speeding by the Israeli army in the West Bank.

A game of two halves

But the Palestinian leadership made its greatest misjudgments during the negotiations with Israel, led by Erekat, whose overly generous concessions were exposed by Al Jazeera in Palestine papers, which included offering Israel the “biggest Yerushalayim in history”.

Abbas chose only negotiations with Israel as the way to achieve peace and somehow misunderstood America’s bias towards Israel under successive administrations. Did it really require that Trump blow the cover of the pretence of even-handedness for Abbas to see the bias?

Even when he had opportunities to really pressure Israel, such as the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the separation wall and the Goldstone Report, Abbas, and his team, let them go to waste. Neither were used to good effect.

It was the leadership’s decision not to make the best use of both the report and the ruling thinking that this would somehow force Israel to make concessions. That was poor judgment in abundance.

The famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

For the Palestinian people, Palestine is much more than life and death and they want to see a leadership that aims high. They can take a leaf from another famous English football manager. Bill Nicholson, a former manager of Tottenham, said: “It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.”

The Palestinian struggle with Zionism is a long one. A much-used phrase in football is that it is a “game of two halves”.

If the Palestinians take the last 70 years as the first half then they are many goals down to Israel and if they are to turn the match over in the next 70 years and score a late winner then they need a new team, a “dream team” that is dynamic, quick on its feet, equipped with fresh ideas and working to develop a new strategy for liberation that the current leadership has failed to deliver.

You sometimes have to be cruel to be kind. Time to blow the half-time whistle and prepare for a famous fightback that will lead to liberation.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: President Abbas heads a PLO Executive Committee meeting at the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah, September 2017 (AFP)