When Palestinian elections were first discussed, the spotlight immediately turned to the struggle between Fatah and Hamas and the fear that under cover of the elections, Hamas would infiltrate into the West Bank. But it soon became clear that the story was not Fatah against Hamas, but Fatah against Fatah.
What is at the root of the Fatah problem? Actually, there are two Fatahs, and a state of tension and competition splits them. The “first Fatah” consists of the PLO leadership of the “exile” with its old roots in today’s Israel, for whom their formative event was the 1948 Nakba. What matters to them is the “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel. Most of them moved to the Palestinian territories after Israel’s withdrawals after the 1994 Oslo Accords, where they established the Muqata, Arafat’s administrative center in Ramallah. Their primary audiences were the residents of refugee camps in Arab countries, largely in Lebanon.
The “second Fatah” is made up of the Palestinians in the West Bank who have little or no attachment to the Nakba, and what they want is the stabilization of their lives in the West Bank. Until the appearance of the “Tunisian leaders” of the PLO, the Nakba issue was hardly mentioned by Palestinian residents in the West Bank. The Nakba gained momentum when the PLO entered the territories, and the famous statues of “keys to the homes they abandoned” began to show up everywhere. This is the ethos of the Tunisians and the bureaucrats in Ramallah where the PLO veterans landed, not the residents of Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron.
A year ago, I visited Jenin and met with members of the Tanzim grassroots offshoot of Fatah. I was surprised to hear that they wanted one state with Israel, and they had stopped believing in a Palestinian state they had fought for all their lives. The reason: they do not believe the “Tunisians” because they are “foreigners,” and the people of Jenin prefer to live with Israel rather than “Ramallah.”
The desire for one state is an opinion heard in broad circles in the West Bank.1 Palestinian writer, Hamada Jaber, reported that “according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Palestinian support for the two-state solution has declined from 55% in 2011 to 39% in 2020 despite the support it has from all Palestinian parties and movements.” Jaber, who identifies with the Palestinian Left, continued, “The depth of the Hamas crisis can be evidenced by its approval of the Fatah movement’s project based on the solution of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, at a time when many leaders of the Fatah movement themselves believe that this solution has become impossible and long dead.”2
In the past, the idea of one democratic state with the Jews was a ploy to erase Israel in a sophisticated formula, but today, as far as I can understand from conversations on the ground, Israel is a role model in the face of the disappointment from the collapsing Arab countries. We see this phenomenon in east Jerusalem, and another aspect of it is the sentiment among Israeli Arabs: “We don’t want to destroy Israel, but to benefit from it.”
Palestinian Elite Versus the “Tunisians”
A fresh example of the differences between “Tunisians” and locals can be found in an interview given recently by former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to the daily al-Quds.3 He spoke at length about the needs of the Palestinians in the territories, but he did not mention a word – or half a word – about the “right of return,” or the “struggle,” etc. – slogans propagated by the Tunisians.
The appearance of Salam Fayyad on the political scene is significant. He announced his candidacy as part of an independent list, not in a Fatah context. In fact, even when he was prime minister, he was not a Fatah member. His attempts to get into Fatah failed because the Tunisians accepted into service only locals who bought into the Fatah agenda. They saw Fayyad as an outsider pressed by the donor countries, who did not want to endorse the PLO agenda. Eventually, the Tunisians dumped him.
The phenomenon of an independent list outside of Fatah has more significance: it is the beginning of the end of the PLO’s hegemony in political life in the West Bank. A shocking incident occurred when Fatah expelled Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Dr. Nasser al Qudwa, the head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation in Ramallah, who intended to organize a list outside Fatah. The candidates on his list include prominent figures from among the Palestinian society but not from the PLO.4
While Fayyad has always been an independent individual, an independent list headed by al Qudwa points to the end of the PLO’s supreme stature.
I recently received a Fatah document detailing the criteria for candidates to participate in the elections. What caught my eye was the quota set for “locals” – at least a third, with the remaining two-thirds being “representatives of the history of the national struggle,” i.e., Tunisians.
Of course, the leading challengers to Mahmoud Abbas represent the internal Tanzim – Marwan Barghouti and Muhammad Dahlan. Jibril Rajoub, another example of the local population (who in the meantime has been enlisted in Qatar’s interests), recently said that the criterion for the post-Mahmoud Abbas leadership is those who suffered in prisons. In other words, whoever replaces Mahmoud Abbas can only come from the ranks of the local Tanzim – which means the end of Tunisians’ rule.
Whether there will be an election or not, the demon is out of the bottle, and the campaign will not be between Hamas but inside Fatah – with or without elections.
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