(July 23, 2019 / JNS) In the West Bank, a number of factions, militias and armed terror organizations have been thinking for a while now about the day after the leadership of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas comes to an end.
Competition over the question of who will fill in the power vacuum that will be left behind has ignited a power struggle, though it is one that has so far largely raged beneath the surface and away from the spotlight.
In addition to Hamas’s plans to exploit the instability to strengthen its presence, elements within the rival Fatah camp could also find themselves in a face-off against one another.
“Leaders do not like to raise successors,” Professor Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, told JNS. “It apparently is seen as ‘bad luck’ that shortens the political life of the leader when a new leader grows in his shadow. This is the explanation for why Abbas has been and is making a large effort to prevent any Fatah senior Fatah operative from standing out and to be thought of as a ‘natural successor’ for the leadership.”
Ganor recalled that Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, operated in a similar manner, appointing several deputies and preventing any of them from amassing too much power, even encouraging occasional rivalries between them.
While democratic systems such as Israel’s can contain changes in leaderships without violence even if they are sudden, political mechanisms and rivalries inside Fatah, “and certainly between Fatah and the Islamist factions, headed by Hamas, will likely lead to chaos accompanied by internal and external violence following the departure of Abbas, if no agreed-upon and defined successor will develop at his side,” assessed Ganor.
Under this scenario, there is a high chance that various armed forces within Fatah—headed by the Tanzim militia—could try to take over leadership positions using the force of arms. To achieve public support, the heads of armed factions would likely compete among one other “with anti-Israeli stances and possibly with violent action,” he cautioned.
“From this perspective, the coming months and years may be the last opportunity to take advantage of the calm in Judea and Samaria, and the economic improvement, to prepare for the day after Abbas,” he stated. This would require Abbas to give his formal blessing to a leader that would be accepted by wide segments of Fatah and the general Palestinian public.
‘The friction will be within’
On May 20, the Shin Bet intelligence agency announced that it had thwarted a series of shooting attacks against Israeli targets in the Ramallah area, planned by Fatah Tanzim figure Zakaria Zubeidi, as well as a second suspect. The arrest was unusual in that most counter-terrorism raids in the West Bank target Hamas operatives.
Prior to his arrest in a February nighttime Shin Bet and Counter-Terror Unit operation, Zubeidi had been dormant for years. Following the Second Intifada, he renounced violence, in exchange for which Israel placed him and other Tanzim gunmen suspected of taking part in past attacks on an amnesty list in 2007. At the same time, Abbas ordered the Tanzim to stand down and cease attacks, while insisting that only the P.A.’s security forces can exercise force.
In addition, Abbas oversaw a period of close security coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the P.A.’s security forces, which benefited both sides in their common interest to prevent Hamas from rearing its head in the West Bank.
It would be premature to conclude that Zubeidi’s alleged return to violence signals a Tanzim reawakening. But the arrest does serve as a reminder of the potential for Fatah Tanzim to stir.
Following Zubeidi’s arrest, Fatah’s Revolutionary Council condemned the Israeli counter-terror operation. According to a report by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the council stated after the arrest that “Fatah will not remain silent,” though it wasn’t followed by any violent action. Abbas’s directive to maintain coordination with Israel remains in place.
Col. (Ret.) Reuven Erlich, who directs the Meir Amit Center, described Zubeidi’s activities as localized and not widespread. However, he, too, saw the scenario of instability after Abbas’s reign as a reasonable scenario with a variety of “power centers, assisted by personnel and militias,” competing against each other.
At the same time, neither Fatah Tanzim nor other components of Fatah would agree to a Hamas takeover, Erlich assessed. “The friction will be within. There is a consensus over preventing Hamas from taking over,” he stated.
It remains unclear who would emerge as a victor from among Fatah’s ranks, he said.
Asked whether Israeli-P.A. security coordination will remain intact, Erlich said the answer depends on “who will take the reins” and lead the P.A., noting that the coordination “already faces quite a few challenges.”