Mohamad Torokman/Reuters/File
Palestinians supporting Hamas chant slogans during a rally celebrating Hamas student supporters winning the student council election at Birzeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah April 23, 2015.

Abbas is old, Hamas divided: Who will lead Palestinians?

A Hamas-affiliated party recently won elections at a university outside Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. It's being taken as a sign of rising criticism of Palestinian leaders and institutions.

Last year, computer science student Mohammed Aruri was in a Palestinian Authority prison, where he says he was forced to stand on his tiptoes with his hands tied behind his back and a sack on his head.

“The PA was established to protect us, not to beat us,” he recalls telling his captors, who interrogated him about his activities as a leader of the Hamas-affiliated Wafaa bloc at Birzeit University.

Mr. Aruri, nephew of an exiled leader of Hamas’s armed wing, says he tried to convince his captors they were fighting the wrong fight, but they didn’t answer. “I feel these are not the people who will liberate us,” he says.

Now Aruri is savoring the victory of the Islamist Wafaa, which late last month trounced its secular Fatah opponents in Birzeit’s student elections for the first time since 2007. Hamas leaders also celebrated the win, holding a rally in the Gaza Strip and immediately calling for national elections.

The electoral upset came at an elite university near cosmopolitan Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. As such it is seen by many as an indication of widespread discontent with President Mahmoud Abbas – also known as Abu Mazen – and his Fatah party, which have dominated the PA since 2007.

“What happened in Birzeit should be a lesson first and foremost for Fatah before it’s a rejoicing moment for Hamas,” says Samira Halayka, a Hamas representative in the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah. “It shows that it’s a failure of the strong-handed approach of Abu Mazen and his people.”

Leadership under fire

While Palestinians of all stripes have long criticized Israel for many of their problems, and still do, they have become increasingly critical of their own leaders and institutions.

Across both the occupied West Bank and the cordoned-off Gaza Strip, Palestinians are demanding stronger leadership and an end to the PA’s Fatah-Hamas divide. Since 2007, the internal divisions have undermined their national cause at home and abroad. They have weakened their hand at the negotiating table with the US and Israel, stymied Gaza reconstruction, and left the PA’s democratic muscle atrophied.

But even as these demands are articulated, the options for alternative leadership are few.

Aruri, like two-thirds of Palestinians, says the PA must end security coordination with Israel. Some 86 percent want the PA to push the International Criminal Court (ICC) to punish Israel for settlement expansion, and nearly half support a return to armed uprising, according to a late March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) headed by Khalil Shikaki.

Abbas overstayed his mandate

In addition, 49 percent of Palestinians say the PA has “become a burden on the Palestinian people.”

“The PA was supposedly founded to serve the Palestinian people,” says Aruri, whose uncle Saleh Aruri is the founder and exiled leader of Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades in the West Bank. “If the PA is unable to fulfill this [role], it should disappear.”

Hamas, though benefiting from the popular frustration with Fatah, is riven by internal tensions. It has also watched its popularity fall since last summer's war: Initially 79 percent of Palestinians saw Hamas as victorious; now only 60 percent think Hamas won, and in Gaza, the percentage of those embracing that view has fallen to 51 percent.

Many accuse Mr. Abbas of intentionally delaying Gaza reconstruction in order to press Hamas to make more concessions, including allowing the PA to take control of Gaza security.

If any Palestinian has benefited politically from the internal divisions, it is Mr. Abbas, who has overstayed his electoral mandate by six years. At age 80, he represents an old guard that is increasingly out of favor even within his own party but firmly ensconced in power, thanks in part to the lack of presidential elections since 2005.

“Abu Mazen, in [the period of] division, became a very strong man,” says Hani el-Masri, head of the independent think tank Masarat in Ramallah. “It is good for him, but it doesn’t achieve the Palestinian goals.”

Few new leadership options

When the first Palestinian intifada broke out in 1987, Birzeit students were at the forefront of the uprising. But as Fatah’s focus has shifted from popular resistance to administering the PA, young leaders have struggled to find a role.

“Ramallah is stagnant,” says Reyad Hab Alreeh, a political science student and leader of Fatah’s Martyr Yasser Arafat bloc at Birzeit. “So what can we offer? There’s nothing to say.”

Today there are no prominent Fatah leaders under 50 years old, for which some blame Abbas. In 10 years as president, Abbas has never named a deputy, and many say he has surrounded himself with yes-men, weakened or suspended Fatah institutions, and sidelined challengers, especially Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan.

“Birzeit is a microcosm of the bigger Fatah picture, whereby the real leaders have been marginalized,” says a former Fatah member of the Palestinian parliament, which has been suspended since 2007. “Abu Mazen is practicing dictatorship within the movement … [he] has paralyzed all the institutions of Fatah … and therefore all the offshoots of these institutions are paralyzed.”

Hamas divided

Hamas has several leaders in their forties, including Al-Qassam Brigades leader Mohammed Deif in Gaza and Saleh Aruri in Turkey, who has been accused of financing Hamas cells and preparing them to abduct Israelis. Last summer Mr. Aruri said Hamas’s armed wing was behind the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, the event that snowballed into the 51-day war in the Gaza Strip.

But Hamas is also divided, with increasing tensions between its Gaza-based armed wing and its political leadership. According to an April 29 report, during the first week of last summer’s Gaza war, the Qassam Brigades were set to launch a massive, unprecedented cross-border tunnel attack to kill Israeli civilians, take hostages back into Gaza, and leverage them to release Hamas prisoners held by Israel.

But politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, in exile in Qatar, reportedly feared Israeli repercussions and put the kibosh on it at the last minute. Mr. Meshaal has also said Hamas would be willing to agree to a two-state solution, but Mr. Deif – who has survived at least four Israeli assassination attempts and has more street credibility than Meshaal – seeks to implement a more aggressive policy toward Israel.

There are only a handful of men seen as potential successors to the Palestinian president. The March PCPSR survey found that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh of Gaza would lose to Abbas by only 1 percentage point in a two-way election, but Israel is unlikely to ever allow him to go to the West Bank.

Marwan Barghouti, who has been hailed by some as a Palestinian Mandela, has widespread support; Mr. Shikaki’s polls show him beating both Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh in presidential elections. But he is in an Israeli prison serving five life sentences for his involvement in the second intifada as head of the Tanzim, an armed offshoot of Fatah.

Recommended next steps

Mr. Dahlan, former head of preventive security in Gaza, is seen by many to be preparing for a comeback from exile in Abu Dhabi, cultivating ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, United Arab Emirates leaders, and even Hamas to bolster his standing. He also has strong support among Gaza’s Fatah cadres, as well as in refugee camps in the West Bank.

Whoever is in the president’s chair, Dr. Masri of Masarat says there are a number of steps that could be taken to strengthen the Palestinian cause:

• Implement reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and agree on a common approach to negotiations, resistance, and Israeli arrests of elected officials

• Hold national parliamentary and presidential elections

• Rebuild the PLO to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and better engage the Palestinian people

• Shift from a nearly exclusive reliance on US diplomacy to a broader strategy that engages Arab leaders as well as the 12 million Palestinians living abroad

• Use international forums such as the UN Security Council and the ICC to gain greater leverage for Palestinian rights.

“Abu Mazen made a big important step [by joining the ICC], but he’s afraid about the results,” says Masri. “It’s not a picnic, it’s a struggle.”

Support for negotiations is low

Still, Palestinians blame Israeli rhetoric and policies for some of their leaders’ failings, particularly in politics. After the second intifada and the death of iconic leader Yasser Arafat, Abbas staked his – and his party’s – future on negotiations with Israel. A decade later, he has no peace deal. Meanwhile, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has grown by about 50 percent, further reducing prospects for negotiations establishing an independent Palestinian state.

“Fatah at large is not as convincing as it used to be, both to the student population and to the population at large,” says Ghassan Khatib, a former PA spokesman and now a vice president and lecturer on contemporary Arab studies at Birzeit. “Fatah gambled on the peace process that has unfortunately failed to deliver, due to the Israeli attitude and practices.”

Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 51 percent support the two-state solution, but fewer than a third think negotiations are the best way to gain statehood, according to PCPSR.

Many blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for undermining Palestinian moderates, most recently with his declaration on the eve of national elections in March that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch. While he later cast that as a statement of fact – that the conditions were not ripe for such a development – most Palestinians took it as proof he is opposed to the two-state solution.

“I wish to God that some of you will study the impact on Palestinian youth thinking [of Netanyahu’s statement],” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the foreign press in Jerusalem after the Birzeit election. “We’re not only going to lose Birzeit, we’re going to lose so many things.”

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