Fatah prepares to replace Mahmoud Abbas

Violence is expected to break out in the West Bank as soon as the Palestinian Authority leader dies or can no longer rule. The fight for succession is expected to be bloody.

Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council in Ramallah, Jan. 14, 2018. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council in Ramallah, Jan. 14, 2018. Photo by Flash90.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Senior Fatah Party official Mahmoud al-Aloul has been appointed as a temporary stand-in for Mahmoud Abbas in case the head of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority becomes unfit to continue in his positions before elections take place.

According to Fatah sources, Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Services, is Mahmoud Abbas’s preferred candidate for his successor as head of the Palestinian Authority. Faraj is also acceptable to the United States and Israel.

Violence is expected to break out in the West Bank as soon as Abbas either dies or can no longer rule. The fight for the succession to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is expected to be bloody.

The latest round of talks at the Fatah Revolutionary Council ended on March 2 in Ramallah. However, contrary to usual practice, no announcements of any decisions taken or the content of the discussions were made public. For this reason, the information provided here is based on leaks from people who were present at the talks.

One of the most important topics apparently discussed was the question of what the Fatah movement should do if Abbas were to become unfit to rule as a result of his advanced age and his fragile state of health.

Last week, he was hospitalized at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for medical examinations. Abbas, 82, suffers from serious heart problems, and according to Palestinian sources in Fatah, has stomach cancer as well.

According to knowledgeable Palestinian sources, Abbas told the participants in the Fatah Revolutionary Council conference: “It’s possible that this is my final meeting with you. No one knows how long he will live. No one can force a political plan upon me that I don’t want. Only what I want will happen; I will not end my life with betrayal!”

Fatah sources have stated that the Revolutionary Council has decided to change the internal constitution of the Fatah movement to allow the movement’s vice chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul to stand in for Abbas as acting party leader for three months if Abbas becomes unfit to govern. During this time, the movement’s general council will meet to decide on a new leadership in a kind of primary election.

The PLO’s national council will also convene next month in Ramallah to choose a new leadership. This will be an election for the PLO’s new executive council. Sources in the movement claim that a suggestion to re-elect Abbas as the leader of the PLO will be set aside.

This process of choosing a successor to Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the ruling party, which is just beginning within Fatah’s institutions, is extremely important. Apparently, Abbas is starting to realize that he may have to leave his position due to his health and wants to influence the choice of his successor while he still has the strength to do so.

However, while al-Aloul will serve as acting leader of the movement if Abbas becomes unfit to rule, this does not necessarily mean that he will become the next chairman of the P.A.

Who is Mahmoud al-Aloul?

It is worthwhile paying some attention to the points of view expressed by the No. 2 leader of the Fatah movement, Mahmoud al-Aloul, who was recently appointed as Abbas’s deputy, giving him a clear advantage in the struggle for the succession to the position of chairman of the P.A.

Mahmoud al-Aloul

Mahmoud al-Aloul, the former head of the P.A.’s Nablus governor. (Arab press)

Mahmoud al-Aloul has a long history of struggle against Israel. Al-Aloul, 66, was born in Nablus (Shechem). Israel exiled him to Jordan in 1971 due to his terrorist activities.

Al-Aloul was involved with the military establishment of the Fatah movement, which committed acts of terror against Israel as part of the movement’s “Western Sector” faction. The Western Sector was led by Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), who was assassinated by Israeli agents in Tunisia in 1988.

Al-Aloul was a member of the PLO’s higher military council; in 1983, he was responsible for the kidnapping of six IDF soldiers in Lebanon. He was also responsible for the prisoner-exchange deal in which around 5,000 inmates of the Ansar camp in southern Lebanon and another 100 security prisoners in Israeli jails were released in return for the kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Al-Aloul also served as the secretary of the Council for the “Affairs of the Occupied Territories,” which presided over the first intifada. His son, Jihad, was killed by Israel Defense Forces’ fire during the second intifada.

Al-Aloul did not return to the West Bank with the rest of the PLO leadership in 1994. His return was delayed by the Israeli security forces for a long time because they had not forgotten the terror activities in which he had been involved.

In the first interview that he gave to the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on March 1, 2017, in his new position as vice chairman of the Fatah movement, al-Aloul alluded to the issue of security cooperation with Israel.

He expressed his support for it (which was a new idea for him), saying, “there are tremendous pressures, and according to some opinions it’s not possible to use the stick right now. Some people made threats, but the use of threats was rejected. However, I say that in the end, there’s no choice. We need to re-evaluate all of the issues related to contact with Israel.”

Mahmoud al-Aloul tries to promote the implementation of the concept of “popular resistance,” in the same style as the struggle in the village of Bil’in, which used grassroots resistance and demonstrations among its villagers to oppose “settlement policies” and the separation fence, and also regarding boycotting Israel.

In the Asharq al-Awsat interview, he stated: “The resistance is legal. … At this stage, the most appropriate form of resistance is popular resistance. Popular resistance is respected in dozens of places, but there’s also a need to invest a lot of effort to make sure that it is aroused. You should see its power to create pressure. It needs to be all inclusive so that it becomes a way of life. We want it to be on the ground, as a lifestyle. We want it to become the prevailing culture among Palestinian society so that our children will refrain from buying Israeli products.”

Two-state solution or one?

In the interview, Mahmoud al-Aloul gave a clear message to the new U.S. administration: “We stick to our rights and to the red lines. We will defend them and won’t give into any dictates.”

When he was asked about Trump’s possible withdrawal from “the two-state solution,” al-Aloul raised the concept of a “single state.”

He said: “We were the first to suggest one democratic state for everyone on this land. The single state that we have spoken about historically is a country where everyone will live together equally, but we know that Israel won’t accept it. They won’t agree. They want a clean Jewish state. Therefore, they seek recognition of a Jewish state. We have offered a single state in the past, and there’s no problem if we accept this idea on our own terms.”

Mahmoud al-Aloul is currently involved in attempts to shore up the faltering power of the Fatah movement on the Palestinian street and to rehabilitate its status, which has been badly damaged due to Mahmoud Abbas’ policies. In the interview, al-Aloul admitted that “there are gaps between the Fatah movement and the Palestinian street.” According to Fatah sources, al-Aloul is urging Fatah leaders on a local level in the West Bank to go down to the street, be in touch with the people and become more reconciled with them.

Mahmoud al-Aloul considers himself the heir to Mahmoud Abbas’s position of chairman of the P.A. He is not in favor of dismantling it and sees its establishment as a national achievement. However, he supports adopting a tough stance against Israel. “The Palestinian Authority must deepen its opposition to the Israeli occupation,” he emphasized.

Meanwhile, despite al-Aloul’s rivalry with Jibril Rajoub, who was appointed secretary-general of the Fatah movement and is essentially the organization’s No. 3 in charge, both men are working together against Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, a protégé of Mahmoud Abbas.

And both of them are working against Muhammad Dahlan, who is a shared political rival and is also claiming the crown of the P.A.

Although al-Aloul is not considered as a threat to Abbas, he is a man with a great deal of experience with terrorist activities and assassinations.

According to senior Fatah officials, two years ago al-Aloul tried to assassinate Ghassan al-Shakaa, a member of the PLO executive committee and former mayor of Shechem, who died in January from a malignant disease.

Militia inside Nablus, 2016

Militia inside Nablus, 2016

A bloody battle for succession is expected

The appointment of Mahmoud al-Aloul as acting vice chairman of the Fatah movement, until internal elections are held, does not necessarily mean that he will be the next chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah has begun preparing for the election of a successor to make sure there is a solution in place before the problem arises, and also to prevent any surprises if Abbas suddenly stops serving in his position for health reasons or if he dies. According to Palestinian law, in the case of incapacitation, the chairman of the Legislative Council (Parliament) replaces the chairman of the P.A. for a 90-day period, until presidential elections can be arranged.

Currently, the chairman of the Legislative Council is Hamas activist Dr. Aziz Duwaik of Hebron, but the Fatah movement is determined not to give him a foothold in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The implication of al-Aloul’s appointment as temporary leader of the movement is that he will also be able to serve temporarily as chairman of the P.A. However, this will require a legislative change.

Mahmoud al-Aloul belongs to the hawkish faction of Fatah. Israel, the United States, and the Arab countries are concerned about his opinions. The Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates) would prefer Muhammad Dahlan as the next chairman of the P.A., while Qatar favors Fatah’s secretary-general, Jibril Rajoub, for the position.

However, according to Fatah sources, Abbas’s preferred candidate for his successor is his loyal supporter Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Service in the West Bank. Faraj is also accepted by the United States and Israel, due to his commanding the P.A.’s war on terror, which is a major consideration. For them, Abbas’s successor must continue his line of maintaining security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank. Faraj has already proven his success in this specific area.

There are a few other candidates among the top ranks of Fatah, such as Gen. Tawfik Tirawi, Marwan Barghouti, Dr. Muhammad a-Shatiyeh, Dr. Nasser al-Kidwa and others who consider themselves as the successors of Mahmoud Abbas.

Some of those laying claim to the crown of the Fatah movement have local armed militias around the West Bank. The prediction within Fatah is that a violent struggle will break out in the area between the various militias as soon as Mahmoud Abbas becomes unfit to rule or dies. The first step anticipated is an armed attempt to take control of the symbols of government in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, such as the Muqata compound, the parliament building, and the radio and TV studios.

The struggle for the succession in the P.A. is heating up, and this is only the beginning. An interesting future is expected to lie ahead.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article originally appeared here.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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