Sufian Abu Zaida, a native of the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, served about 12 years (from 1981 to 1993) in an Israeli jail on charges of membership in the Fatah movement, among other things. Following his release from prison, as part of the Oslo Accord, he went on to become a key activist in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abu Zaida is apparently the Fatah official most familiar to the Israeli public. This is thanks to his fluency in Hebrew, which he studied to perfection while in prison, and due to the moderate positions he has given voice to over the years as well as his courageously expressed, open criticism of former chairman of the Palestine Authority (PLO Chairman) Yasser Arafat and his successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
On May 31, the movement in which he had been an active member for over four decades decided to remove him from its ranks just because he dared to criticize the way Abbas conducted its affairs. The long years he had been serving on behalf of Fatah were not reckoned to his credit. In the first exclusive interview he has granted since his dismissal from his movement, Abu Zaida calls Abbas a “dictator.”
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Given your persistent criticism of Mahmoud Abbas, couldn’t you see you had it coming?
Abu Zaida: Well, it was expected. It seems that in anticipation of the Fatah seventh general conference in August, which is expected to elect a new leadership for the movement, a decision has been made to keep out anyone who fails to toe the line with Mahmoud Abbas. The Fatah constitution is of no significance. It’s enough that you are associated with [former Fatah official] Mohammed Dahlan to justify your exclusion.
Al-Monitor: What was the official reason for your exclusion?
Abu Zaida: I published an article criticizing Mahmoud Abbas' decision to dismantle the Ministry for Prisoner Affairs and hand it over to the PLO. I wrote that it undermines the stability of the Palestinian Authority and violates the prisoners' rights. That same day, Mahmoud Abbas decided it was time to remove me from the ranks of Fatah, although I myself had voluntarily removed myself from Fatah's institutions. However, that was not enough for him, and he went so far as to drive me out of the Fatah movement.
Four other high-ranking officials were expelled along with me: Rashid Abu Shabak (commander of Preventive Security in Gaza), Majed Abu Shamala (member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who had served as the Fatah secretary in Gaza on the eve of the Hamas takeover in June 2007), Nasser Jama'a (member of the Palestinian Legislative Council) and Abdel Hamid al-Masri (member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council). And mind you, it is not going to stop there. They are unearthing all kinds of stories about people, just to force them out of Fatah, no matter what the latter have done in their lives and how much of their lives they have sacrificed for the movement and for the Palestinian people.
Al-Monitor: You served a long time in the Israeli prison, and you fought in the name of the Palestinian leadership when Abbas was still in Lebanon or in Tunisia. Do you feel humiliated? Do you feel that your many rights have been trampled by the movement on whose behalf and in whose name you were fighting?
Abu Zaida: No, no, no, and once again, no! I don’t see it at all as something that could hurt my dignity. My membership in Fatah does not derive from my recognition by Mahmoud Abbas or by anyone else. Nor is it dependent on any piece of paper or form. Fatah is not just an organization or a party. In fact, more than an ideology-driven party, it is a grassroots, national party. What’s more, I feel that now, following Mahmoud Abbas' decision to expel me, people identify with me enormously. The support I get is a thousand times more massive than before the decision, and I feel even more closely allied to the Fatah movement than I’ve ever felt before Abbas' decision.
Al-Monitor: It seems that your expulsion actually prompts people to present an even more militant opposition to the “reign of fear,” as it is characterized by many; doesn’t it?
Abu Zaida: Yes, of course. And there is another important point — the constitutional aspect. The Fatah constitution by no means empowers the leader of the movement to decide all by himself to throw people out of the movement. Any such decision should be made by the Central Committee. It must hear first the member about to be kicked out, and give him the opportunity to defend himself. And only then, once it is established that the person in question has subverted against the movement's institutions, should a decision be made in his case. Up to this very moment, no one has informed me about my expulsion from Fatah; I have learned it only from press reports.
Al-Monitor: One of the members in the committee that signed the documents ratifying your expulsion from Fatah is deputy secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, Jibril Rajoub, who is known to be a rival of Mohammed Dahlan.
Abu Zaida: There is tension between Rajoub and Dahlan — it is no secret. However, each of the committee members, including Rajoub, is looking after his own interests and seeks to hold on to his seat. And they did what they had been asked to do. I feel sorry for them. I pity those who had to make the decision. I pity those who are unable to make their voice heard; those who are so scared of the leader that they fail to stand up for the constitution. I really feel sorry for each one of them.
Al-Monitor: You served a long time in the Israeli prison due to your membership in Fatah. Seeing Fatah as it is these days, and looking back in retrospect, is it a shattered dream for you?
Abu Zaida: I have never imagined that this is what would happen to Fatah. Mind you, all of our generation, a combative generation, fought for its beliefs. I, for one, am a self-respecting person who sticks to his principles, and I would not cave in. I did not give in at the time even to Yasser Arafat, whose standing by far surpassed that of Mahmoud Abbas, a thousand times more. When I felt that I had to voice an opinion contrary to Arafat’s, I did not hesitate to speak out. In the past, people said that Arafat was a dictator, but he was not. Arafat never expelled anyone from Fatah, not even those who fought against him in Tripoli, in Lebanon, back in 1982. Only two years later, he took measures against them, and whoever apologized, he welcomed with open arms. And I'm talking about those who fired on Arafat — not on those who merely passed judgment on him.
Al-Monitor: So, Mahmoud Abbas is a dictator?
Abu Zaida: Sure, that’s what he is, a dictator.
Al-Monitor: You served in the past as minister of prisoner affairs. Why, in your opinion, has the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs been handed over to the PLO?
Abu Zaida: It’s due to the constant pressure exerted by the right in Israel on the European Union and the United States, on the claim that the funds and donations granted to the Palestinian Authority end up in the hands of “terrorists” serving time in prison. Rumors have it that while the Americans were mulling over the question of whether or not to recognize the Palestinian unity government, they posed various conditions to Mahmoud Abbas. Under one of the conditions, Abbas had to halt any fund transfers to prisoners in [Israeli] jails. Mahmoud Abbas agreed — I don’t want to use the word surrendered — and even signed an edict relegating the matter to be dealt with by the PLO. The move met with resistance, on the part of Hamas as well, and the opposition escalated following the publication of my article under the title “The Dangers Inherent in Dismantling the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs.” Abbas had to put off the dismantling of the ministry, and the government was thus set up without staffing the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs.
Al-Monitor: Is the unity government set up by Mahmoud Abbas beneficial to the Palestinian people?
Abu Zaida: Look here, the Palestinian people do not feel that anything has really changed. The people realize that Hamas has reconciled with Fatah not because the split is to the detriment of the Palestinian people, but rather due to the constraints it is facing in view of the situation in Egypt and the economic pressure exerted on the organization. Hamas has no choice, as it can no longer function the way it used to in previous years. Therefore, Hamas accepted practically all the conditions posed by Mahmoud Abbas. Thus, it had to agree, among other things, to the continued service in office of ministers in key positions closely associated with Abbas, among them [Palestinian Authority] Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Foreign Minister Riad Malki, Finance Minister Shukri Bishara and [Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs] Mohammad Mustafa. As a matter of fact, the government set up is the government of Mahmoud Abbas, who has taken advantage of Hamas' weakness.
As for Hamas, it is primarily interested in two things: Hamas seeks to pass the burden of Gaza onto the shoulders of the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas. And it hopes that the reconciliation will pave the way to the opening of the Rafah border crossing and soften the position of Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi with respect to Hamas.