Who does Mahmoud Abbas represent?
Mark Perry reports on the latest incident in the West Bank which indicates that the Palestinian acting president, Mahmoud Abbas, can now only impose his authority by force.
On Aug. 25, one week prior to the opening of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a group of Palestinians held a conference in Ramallah to discuss – and protest — President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to travel to Washington to attend the talks. The Ramallah gathering, to be held at Ramallah’s Protestant Club meeting house, had been meticulously planned by a prominent coalition of political activists that included Palestinian businessmen, acknowledged leaders in Palestinian civil society and respected leaders of Palestinian political parties. “This was to be an open forum, an assembly to debate and discuss,” Munib al-Masri, the founder of the Palestine Forum and one of the meeting’s organizers said in an interview from his home in Nablus. “Our intention was to exercise our right to assemble and debate. Tragically, that’s not what happened.”
As the crowd of attendees (later estimated at between 250-300 people) began to gather at noon on Aug. 25, a group of about 100 non-uniformed officers from the Palestinian General Intelligence Service entered the hall carrying placards featuring Abbas’s picture and shouting pro-Abbas slogans. Across the street, at the headquarters of Al Haq — an independent human rights organization — Shawan Jabarin, the organization’s director (who had been invited to attend the meeting), heard of the commotion and decided to walk to the meeting hall. Jabarin described the scene: “This was going to be a large and important meeting,” he said, “so there were already 200 to 300 people in the hall at noon. But it was clear they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. The security people were shouting slogans, intimidating people. I saw a sign — ‘Stop Supporting Iran.’”
Inside the hall, those disrupting the meeting (Israeli journalist Amira Hess described them in Haaretz as “young men of similar appearance — well-developed muscles, civilian clothes and stern facial expressions”) began to shout down the first speaker, Dr. Mamdouh Al Aker, the director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (PICCR). When Aker asked for a moment of silence “in memory of those who gave their lives for the Palestinian people and the Arab nation” he was whistled down and the crowd of young men began to shout in unison: “With our blood and our souls, we will redeem you, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas].” The young men, now a phalanx of intimidating muscle and anger, began to push and shove the attendees out of the building. “People were frightened and were pushed outside, shoved out by the security people,” Al Haq’s Jabarin remembers. “It was outrageous, so I directed my staff to take pictures.”
Mustafa Barghouti, the head of the Palestinian National Initiative (a leading and increasingly strong political movement inside Palestine) and one of the most prominent leaders scheduled to speak at the meeting was in the crowd as it was pushed out of the meeting house. He attempted to maintain order and separate the meeting’s attendees from the group disrupting the gathering. “People were pushed into the street,” he remembers, “and that’s when the beatings began. It was very violent. The General Intelligence people were pushing people to the ground.” On the street in front of the Protestant Club, meanwhile, members of the Al Haq staff began to document the incident. “We had a camera, one of my staff members had a camera,” Jabarin says, “and we were trying to take pictures. But my staff member who had the camera was pushed down and the security official attempted to take the camera, to break it. This man was beating him and when one of my other staff members tried to help him, she was pushed to the ground and beaten. They got the camera.”
Standing nearby, Bassam al-Salhi, general secretary of the Palestine Peoples’ Party (and a former candidate for president), also attempted to stop the beatings. “This was mob violence,” he says. “But I thought that if we could somehow move up the street we could stop the confrontations.” Facing continued harassment, the group decided to walk to a nearby park, but were prevented from doing so by the Ramallah police. “They didn’t participate in the violence,” Salhi says of the police, “but they didn’t try to stop it either. Eventually, we had nowhere to go – so people just ran away. They had no choice.” The leaders of the conference, meanwhile, decided to take their protest of the incident to the headquarters of Watan, a local television station. But when they appeared on camera, a vocal group of security officials shouted them down, waving their placards in front of the Watan cameras. Inevitably, perhaps, the continued intimidation of the speakers was successful – and the crowd at Watan dispersed.
Writing from Gaza, Laila El-Haddad says:
There is very little patience in Gaza for this latest set of talks. They are not only being conducted without a national consensus by what is broadly considered an illegitimate government, but they also completely marginalise the Gaza Strip and overlook the blockade and asphyxiation it has suffered for more than four years.
“When people started to talk about negotiations and going back to the peace process and all, I thought, wait a minute, who took our opinion before going there?” said Ola Anan, 25, a computer engineer from Gaza City. “I mean, Mahmoud Abbas is now a president who’s out of his presidential term. So in whose name is he talking? In the name of Palestinians? I don’t think so.”
Abu el-Abed, a 30-year-old fisherman who sells crabs in the coastal Gaza enclave of Mawasi said: “We hear about the negotiations on television, but we don’t see them reflected on the ground. They’re not feasible. Gaza’s completely marginalised as far as negotiations go. There’s no electricity, there’s no water. There’s no movement. Living expenses are high. And the borders are all closed.”
Ultimately, Gazans know very little or care very little about what is happening in Washington, because what’s happening in Washington cares very little about them, says Nader Nabulsi, a shopkeeper in Gaza City’s Remal neighbourhood: “These negotiations don’t belong to us, and we don’t belong to them.”
Nabulsi, like many others here, feels the negotiations are farcical given the fractured nature of the Palestinian leadership, but also given the fact that most consider Abbas’s government illegitimate and his term expired.