GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the second-largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has decided to boycott the upcoming meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), scheduled to be held April 30 in Ramallah.
Zulfiqar Sawirjo, a PFLP leader, told Al-Monitor, “Our position is clear. The PNC should convene outside the country so that all factions can attend the meeting. Holding a PNC session in Ramallah under the Israeli occupation prevents many faction leaders from attending such a meeting. We will boycott the PNC but remain part of the PLO, which serves as a reference for the Palestinian people.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza or outside Palestine cannot travel to Ramallah because Israel will not allow them to enter the West Bank. The PFLP's decision to boycott came after two days of talks, April 17-18, between representatives from that group and the Fatah movement in Cairo, during which the PFLP called for the postponement of the PNC meeting until a consensus formula could be reached that would allow members of Hamas to attend. The two parties failed to reach such a consensus, and Fatah refused to postpone the meeting.
Sawirjo further remarked, “Fatah did not abide by the outcome of the PNC Preparatory Committee meeting, which was held in Beirut on Jan. 10, 2017, between the PLO factions, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement. They agreed on the need for the PNC meetings to include all the Palestinian forces in a bid to restore the stature of the divided Palestinian political system. Fatah, however, insisted on holding the meeting in Ramallah.”
The PFLP said April 19 in a statement on its official website, “As the two delegations failed to reach an agreement regarding the postponement of the PNC session, the PFLP decided not to take part in the session and confirmed its position on the PLO and highlighted the importance of its role, stature and representative character. [The PFLP] also stressed its ongoing sincere efforts to have a unifying PNC.”
The PNC, established in 1948, has met only 23 times, the last being in August 2009 in Ramallah. In accordance with Article 18 of the council's bylaws, the council is supposed to meet once a year, but the political situation has made it difficult to convene all its members, some of whom reside inside the Palestinian territories and others who live elsewhere. The PNC, the highest authority in the PLO, is in charge of policy and planning, and it also tracks the performance of the PLO Executive Committee.
Azzam al-Ahmad, the Fatah Central Committee member responsible for the Palestinian reconciliation dossier, said April 19 on Al-Ghad TV that Fatah insists on convening the PNC in a timely manner despite the PFLP’s decision to boycott. “The PNC will convene at 6:30 p.m. April 30, regardless of who agrees or disagrees,” Ahmad said.
Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, dominates the PNC, so it ultimately has the final say in PLO decisions in general, including those related to convening the PNC. The PNC consists of representatives from 14 factions; Fatah is represented by 49 PNC members, while the PFLP has 21, out of 691 total. Despite its seemingly low membership total, Fatah nevertheless has overall control of the PNC and of the funds granted to the organization's factions.
Reaching a quorum requires two-thirds of PNC members to be in attendance. Mohammed Ashtayeh, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, told the newspaper Donia al-Watan newspaper April 19, “The PFLP’s boycott will not affect the quorum, but it will certainly have political resonance.” He also said, “We deeply regret the PFLP’s decision not to participate in the PNC session. In 1984, the PFLP decided not to take part in a PNC session, but it eventually backed down from its decision.”
Taking further issue with Fatah, the PFLP's Sawirjo complained that Fatah had appointed new PNC members in violation of council rules. Fatah had apparently taken the initiative to appoint new representatives to replace 82 deceased members without consulting the council and has called on them to attend the Ramallah meeting.
Hassan Abu Shemalah, a legal expert at the Centre for Regional Studies – Palestine, told Al-Monitor, “It was difficult to get two-thirds of the PNC members to attend the meeting in Ramallah and obtain a quorum. This is why the PLO leadership sought to appoint new members in a way that was contrary to the mechanism of appointment of members stipulated in Article 32 of the PLO’s bylaws. This article stipulates that appointments should be made for the purpose of deepening national unity and as required by the battle of liberation.”
According to the PFLP, Fatah's actions surrounding the PNC do not serve to deepen unity but to deepen the current Palestinian political division, represented by the estrangement between Hamas and Fatah. With the PFLP's stance on the PNC meeting, it will now likely suffer at the hands of Fatah, because of the latter's dominance of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.
Sawirjo said, “In light of the decision to boycott the PNC, the Palestinian presidency will work on imposing political restrictions and maintaining the existing financial restrictions, and it is expected to prevent the movement of some of our members in several countries. But financial and political extortion will not lead us to back down from the unified national position that we took.”
Abbas withheld financial allocations for the PFLP in December 2010, April 2016, April 2017 and January 2018 as a result of the PFLP's adoption of positions contrary to those of Abbas. The PLO factions receive monthly installments from the Palestinian National Fund according to their size, based on the number of members.
In a statement released April 19, Hamas voiced its support for the PFLP’s refusal to attend the PNC session in the absence of a consensus. It opposed the “hegemony of the Palestinian decision” and called on the various factions as well as civil institutions to take a similar position and refuse to participate in the PNC session.
Akram Atallah, a writer and political analyst with the newspaper Al-Ayyam, told Al-Monitor, “The PLO was founded based on consensus between several factions. In other words, holding a session without the PFLP, which is the second-largest faction in the PLO, and failing to meet its conditions will affect the national character of the PLO and would not be reflective of the Palestinian will.”
Along with Hamas, the PFLP and Islamic Jihad, three independent PNC members have announced that they will not attend the Ramallah meeting because of the lack of consensus to bring all the factions together and because Israel's occupation prohibits it.
At the meeting, Abbas is expected to put forward proposals allowing the PLO Central Council to take legislative and legal decisions in lieu of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which has not met in full since the Fatah-Hamas split in 2007. In this regard, PLO Executive Committee member Hanna Omair told the official Voice of Palestine on April 17, “The most prominent issue is how to strengthen the role of the PLO in the Palestinian political and legislative arena.”