Note to Abbas: Independence comes before despotism
In the past, leaders fighting against colonialism and foreign occupation tended to wait until after achieving independence to start ruling like despots.
The pattern is familiar: National leaders form alliances with compatriots of all stripes and then turn their guns against them once the outside enemy is defeated.
In other cases, the leaders establish strong ties with their former colonisers, who help them crack down on their own populations post-liberation. The operative word being “post-liberation”.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas does not seem willing to wait that long, especially with no clear signs of progress towards reaching an independent Palestinian state. However, his policies are making matters worse.
Abbas has become increasingly intolerant of internal dissent or criticism, pitting many Palestinians against the forces of the PA, rather than unifying them towards a common goal of overcoming occupation.
On March 12th, Palestinian security forces violently broke up an anti-PA protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Demonstrators and journalists were beaten with clubs by helmeted riot troops, prompting outrage.
The following day, protesters held another demonstration calling for Abbas’s resignation and slamming the PA’s security coordination with Israel as “treason”. In a separate sit-in, Palestinian journalists demonstrated against the previous day’s violent dispersal, during which recording equipment was reportedly broken.
The Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) called for an investigation into the PA forces’ conduct. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah promised to investigate the incident.
ICHR head Amar Dweik said dozens of peaceful protesters have been detained in the past six months, although most have since been released.
The sense of intimidation lingers, however, and many of those detained are asking the same question: Does the bloated security apparatus have nothing better to do than silence peaceful dissent?
Alaa Tartir, programme director of Al-Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network, said there were more than 83,000 security sector personnel (belonging to either the PA or Hamas) in the West Bank and Gaza — a ratio of one to every 48 Palestinians.
“Over one-third of the PA’s national budget is spent on its security forces, which are armed and trained by the US government,” wrote Palestinian journalist Linah Alsaafin in the London Times.
All that for a divided nation under occupation? What has the PA left for post-independence? When there will be borders to guard and sovereignty to protect?
Sometimes leaders who have made sacrifices serving an honourable cause tarnish their image after getting drunk with power but what legacy does Abbas have to point to? What will he leave behind for Palestinians?
He is already facing a number of serious challenges.
Fatah, the faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) headed by Abbas, is bitterly divided. Instead of Abbas reaching out to his disgruntled comrades, he spent time during the latest party congress consolidating his power. At this point, Abbas might find it easier to mend fences with arch-rival Hamas than his Fatah foes.
Abbas’s Arab backers have expressed frustration with his mismanagement, and there is limit to how far EU funding can go.
Despite sounding upbeat following a phone conversation with US President Donald Trump, who reportedly “asserted his full commitment to the peace process”, Abbas knows very well that Washington will be extra-accommodating to Tel Aviv for at least four years.
When Abbas meets with Trump in the coming weeks, he will be reminded that this US president is even more entrenched in the Israeli camp than his predecessor.
The Israelis will continue accusing Abbas of inciting violence, while at home the Palestinian leader is accused of bidding for the occupier.
Why has Abbas alienated himself from the people he is entrusted to protect? He needs them more than they need him and the whole Palestinian Authority.