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Mahmoud Abbas Seeks to Neutralize Firebrand Marwan Barghouti Sitting in Prison

Filed under: Jerusalem

Mahmoud Abbas Seeks to Neutralize Firebrand Marwan Barghouti Sitting in Prison
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting of Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Central Council in Ramallah, West Bank on February 6, 2022. (Palestinian President’s Office)
  • Marwan Barghouti, the convicted Palestinian terrorist sitting in prison, has temporarily managed to block the Eighth Fatah Conference, in which Mahmoud Abbas planned to destroy his political power and prevent his election as Fatah’s leader.
  • Discontent is growing among other Fatah security prisoners as Abbas seeks to prevent their representatives from taking part in the conference. They are threatening an outburst of violence, and negotiations on a compromise are underway.
Marwan Barghouti (Screengrab, Journeyman Pictures, YouTube)
Marwan Barghouti
Marwan Barghouti behind bars (Screengrab, Journeyman Pictures, YouTube)

In early March 2022, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the Chairman of Fatah, had to postpone the Eighth Fatah Conference, which was supposed to be held in Ramallah on March 21. It has now been rescheduled to the second half of May. The conference is slated to elect the movement’s leaders and the members of its institutions.

Barghouti (center), Samir Kuntar (right) and Ahmed Saadat (left).
Barghouti (center) and fellow prison inmates, Samir Kuntar (right) and Ahmed Saadat (left).  Kuntar, who participated in a brutal terrorist attack in 1979,  was released in a prisoner swap in 2008. He was killed in December 2015, in an Israeli air raid against Hizbullah leaders. Ahmed Saadat, a PFLP leader, organized the assassination team that killed Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001. He remains in prison.

After Abbas succeeded in early February 2022 to undercut his associates in the PLO leadership and take over the organization’s pivotal posts by convening the PLO Central Council, he planned the Eighth Fatah Conference for later this year to further his objectives:

  1. To politically destroy his bitter enemy Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for the murder of Israeli civilians.
  2. To promote his associate General Majid Freij to the Fatah Central Committee.
  3. To weaken the camp in Fatah that opposes the promotion of his associates Freij and Hussein al-Sheikh.

The opposition within Fatah, which includes Jibril Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, and Mahmoud al-Aloul, is working against those Abbas associates as part of the war of succession.

To promote the above objectives, Fatah set up a committee to prepare the conference and ensure its success. Abbas limited the number of delegates who could participate to 1,200. The directive bans representatives of the Fatah security prisoners in Israeli prisons from participating in the conference. The aim is to weaken Barghouti, who is considered their icon and whom they would very likely elect as their representative to the Fatah Central Committee.

Abbas and Hussein al-Sheikh pulled strings behind the scenes to establish criteria: those participating in the conference will be representatives of the Palestinian security mechanisms, retired Fatah operatives, present and past Fatah ministers, and present and past members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

According to senior Fatah officials, the explanation given for barring the security prisoners’ representatives from the conference was that their participation would anger Israel and the United States, which oppose the monthly salaries to the security prisoners and their families and demand that the practice be stopped because it encourages terror.

Abbas explained through his associates that having the security prisoners’ representatives take part in the Eighth Fatah Conference could undermine the reopening of the PLO offices in Washington and the transfer of the American consulate to east Jerusalem.

The decision angered the Fatah security prisoners, who threatened to come out openly against Abbas; some even threatened to split the movement. Abbas sent Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub to calm the furies, and Rajoub authorized security prisoner Karim Yunis to try to work out understandings.

Yunis is a member of the Fatah Central Committee serving a life term for the murder of Israeli soldier Avraham Bromberg in 1981.

Barghouti managed so far to temporarily block Abbas’ effort to destroy him politically, but the Fatah Conference will not be held until the second half of May. Although Abbas fears an explosion in the movement that he heads, he is determined to crush Barghouti, who is challenging his leadership.

Barghouti’s portrait on the Palestinian side of the security wall.
Barghouti’s portrait on the Palestinian side of the security wall. (Ben Siesta/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Barghouti enjoys a considerable lead over the 86-year-old Abbas in Palestinian opinion surveys, and the Palestinian street sees him as the right candidate for the next PA chairman. Preventing his victory was one of the reasons Abbas deferred elections in the territories a year ago. Fatah sources claim Abbas torpedoed Barghouti’s release in the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal and is now working with Israel and the United States to prevent his release as part of a new prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. Neither Abbas nor Barghouti has said his last word in the affair.

Cartoon showing Abbas blocking Barghouti’s cell from an Israeli with a “release” order.
Cartoon showing Abbas blocking Barghouti’s cell from an Israeli with a “release” order. (Sawad Bakht, Facebook)

Abbas is already prepared for the next stage. According to senior Fatah officials, as the Eight Fatah Conference approaches, he is planning to freeze the membership of 150 Fatah activists who support Barghouti and thereby weaken him in the internal elections for the Fatah institutions.