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Weak and Hesitant, Abbas Watches As Chaos Mounts in Palestinian Areas

January 4, 2006
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Less than a month before parliamentary elections, the Palestinian areas seemed to be spiraling even further into anarchy. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president whose election a year ago was seen by many as the beginning of a new era, has been exposed as a weak leader who is losing control. Despite the high hopes for Abbas when he took office last year, his achievements have been exceedingly minor.

Abbas did achieve the “tahdiya,” or “calming-down period,” with Palestinian terrorist groups, which led to a reduction in the number of terrorist attacks against Israel — but also gave the groups time to rebuild their infrastructure, which was in tatters from Israeli anti-terror raids.

Israel gave Abbas control over most towns in the West Bank, allowed him to open the Rafah crossing point to Egypt under P.A. control and increased the number of permits for Palestinian workers to Israel.

However, Israel declined Abbas’ demands for a blanket release of all Palestinian prisoners, refusing to release those who had murdered Israelis. And on the Palestinian street, Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, got credit for the major development of the past year, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Worst of all, the Palestinian Authority seems to have very limited authority to impose order.

The anarchy is particularly keen in Gaza, where everyone seems to be fighting everyone else. Gaza has been hit by an increasing wave of lawlessness in recent months. P.A. security forces are unwilling to prevent the launching of Kassam rockets into Israel — Abbas has said the rockets are Israel’s concern, not his — armed gangs storm government buildings and election offices to press political demands, and gangs kidnap foreigners and shoot at each other in the streets.

Even the Islamist terrorist groups seem to be fighting each other: Splinter groups have engaged in violent power struggles, even within the usually disciplined Hamas.

Abducting foreigners in Gaza has become the latest fashion of small armed gangs frustrated by their inability to carry out terrorist attacks in Israel. It so happens that their targets are mostly foreigners who have come to Gaza as humanitarian aid workers to help the Palestinians.

Last week, an unknown group, the Mujaheddin Brigade, kidnapped a British pro-Palestinian activist and her parents — they eventually were released — but the episode showed the haplessness of the Palestinian police, who have lost the ability to impose the rule of law.

“Either the Palestinian Authority gathers the strength to fight for its life. . . or the Islamist organizations will win and become the real power elements,” Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned. Abbas “must decide which way he is headed.”

But is establishing the rule of law still within his power? They used to say of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, that he had the power to curb terrorism but lacked the will. With Abbas it seems to be the other way round: He has the will to fight terrorism, or at least so he declares, but appears to have an aversion to exercising power.

At each turn, Abbas refused to confront terrorist groups such as Hamas that scorned his authority, until those groups may soon overtake Abbas’ own Fatah Party as the dominant player in Palestinian society.

Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, head of the political-security headquarters at Israel’s Defense Ministry, warns that Hamas could gain as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of seats in the Parliament in the Jan. 25 elections or even “gain control over the Palestinian Authority.”

Recent Hamas victories in West Bank municipal elections reflect the weakening of Fatah and Abbas personally. There is a gap, though, between Abbas’ image as a weak leader and the latest results of opinion polls.

A poll conducted a month ago by Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah showed wide-ranging public support for Abbas personally and for the continued democratization of Palestinian society.

Some 78 percent of Palestinians said they would vote in the elections; of those, 50 percent said they would vote for Fatah and 32 percent for Hamas. The rest were either undecided or said they would vote for independents.

Asked to choose between candidates for P.A. president, 41 percent of respondents chose Abbas, followed by Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahar at 21 percent and jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti at 19 percent.

Israel, however, has almost given up hope that Abbas will ever display leadership. On Sunday, Olmert repeated the official Israeli view that Abbas should “fight the terrorist organizations with determination” — as the Palestinian Authority has pledged to do repeatedly, most recently under the current “road map” peace plan.

Israeli opposition figures accuse Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of purposely weakening Abbas to substantiate the Israeli claim that “there is no partner on the other side.”

“They have deliberated failed him,” Meretz leader Yossi Beilin told JTA. “They made him see Israel release Hezbollah prisoners, while being reluctant to release Palestinians prisoners who would upgrade his popularity, and he was actually boycotted by Israeli leaders.”

Beilin has been a long time supporter of Abbas. Together they prepared the Oslo Accord in 1993, then reached the “Beilin-Abu Mazen” understanding about an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, which some saw as a blueprint for an eventual peace treaty.

“Granted, he’s not a national hero, he’s not the strongest person, he’s no Napoleon and no Arafat, but this is what makes him an ideal partner for us: He is a rational leader who is not captive to his slogans in the style of Arafat’s rhetoric,” Beilin said.

In the past, Israeli left-wingers repeatedly have excused Palestinian leaders’ failings by saying Israel did not do enough to help them. However, even Beilin conceded that the situation of Abbas — who received strong backing support from both the United States and Europe — might have been no different even had Israel been more forthcoming.

Abbas’ status has weakened within Fatah as well. Last month, old-time Fatah leaders such as Barghouti and security chiefs Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub formed a new party, deepening the rift between the veteran Fatah leadership that returned to the territories from Tunis after Oslo and the younger, more local leadership that endured the hardships of Israeli occupation.

The two factions reunited several days ago amid warnings that their split would only increase the chaos. Abbas now is seeking a way to postpone the elections — ideally, aides have said, he would find a pretext to blame it on Israel — until he has regained control of the situation.

Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah leader in the Gaza Strip, suggested Sunday that holding the elections on Jan. 25 is almost impossible.

If, however, elections do take place on time and Hamas wins, there’s no reason to worry, Abu-Zaida suggested: Once the extremists are in power or are part of the government, they’ll have no choice but to recognize Israel and negotiate with it, he says.

Then again, they may not — and Abbas’ impotence may just allow a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction to take the reins of Palestinian politics.

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