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Fatah prepares for Palestinian leadership succession amid focus on 'day after' in Gaza

As President Mahmoud Abbas' approval sags, Fatah leaders have been searching for a formula to break the political impasse within the movement and prepare for potential postwar governance of the Gaza Strip.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in the Muqata'a, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on January 10, 2024.

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The passing of the mid-December deadline for holding the eighth Fatah congress has accelerated the internal discussion on the urgency of reforming Fatah, the mainstream secular Palestinian movement. The congress has been delayed several times since 2021, most recently because of the war in Gaza.

Fatah leaders past and present, along with activists, have been searching for a formula to break the political impasse within the movement. Despite discord regarding how to change, there's widespread agreement that leadership change is much needed.

Palestinians generally feel that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a lackluster leader who appears to take no initiative and has been absent in dealing with the war in Gaza and the uptick in settler violence. And they also feel that Abbas, who is 88, appears unable to satisfy the aspirations of his own cadres. Well-placed sources tell Al-Monitor that there is much discontent that Abbas has not deployed armed Palestinian security personnel to Palestinian villages and communities that have become constant targets for settler attacks in the West Bank. 

For his part, Abbas is adamant that his passive approach is not due to a lack of willingness; rather, it is the best policy for ensuring the safety of Palestinians in the West Bank. Of course, he's also focused on staying under the radar to ensure his own political survival. 

Palestinians want Abbas out 

Abbas received a word of support this week from Shawan Jabarin, the director of the West Bank-based Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq, who praised him and the efforts of Palestinian officials in Ramallah for supporting (behind the scenes) the complaint filed by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

Still, polls show an overwhelming majority of Palestinians want the aging Abbas to retire. A December poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research noted that “demand for Abbas' resignation is rising to around 90%, and even higher in the West Bank.” But the fact that the Palestinian president — who was elected in 2005 and has refused to hold a vote since — has no vice president, and the fact that any new elections could bring a landslide Hamas victory based on growing support for the militant group in the West Bank, has made the need to find a new leadership structure all the more urgent for Fatah members. 

One idea that was floated a few weeks ago has finally seen development. An anonymous group made up of Fatah party members, calling itself "Fatah Thought and Opinion Leaders," has called on the three Fatah leaders of the now-canceled 2022 elections to work together as a team to help revitalize the movement. (They were previously planning to run on separate lists.) The leaders includes Fatah Central Committee member and the movement’s secretary Jibril Rajoub; Dr. Nasser al-Qudwa, the former member of the Fatah Central Committee; and Samir Masharawi, the deputy of the Fatah branch led by exiled leader Mohammed Dahlan. 

The activists have not yet succeeded in getting all three to meet publicly, but several Zoom calls have produced a relatively large turnout, while a survey of the participants shows that well-respected Fatah leaders participated and expressed their opinions in a lively discussion about how to revitalize Fatah.

Nasser al-Qudwa, former Palestinian UN delegate and former foreign minister (and the nephew of the late President Yasser Arafat), appears to be putting himself out there in hopes of gaining momentum. Al-Qudwa has visited Cairo, Doha, Amman and London and has met with Hamas, Arab and European leaders with the idea of helping find a post-war strategy.

Jibril Rajoub, who is the secretary of Fatah, has refused to publicly cooperate with the group calling itself "Fatah Thought and Opinion Leaders," possibly out of fear of losing his position as secretary-general. However, it is not clear if he has supported the initiative in private. On the Zoom call al-Qudwa said that he has been cooperating with Mashrawi and unnamed members of the Fatah Central Committee and that serious post-war discussions have taken place. In a post on a public WhatsApp group, al-Qudwa said that the focus of ongoing "day after" talks is the creation of a government that can forge a path to an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The wildcard

Many Palestinians are hoping for the release of the most popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving life sentences for his role in planning attacks during the second intifada. 

Both al-Qudwa and Mashrawi have said that they will support Barghouti if he is released to lead the movement, a London-based source who met with the two men told Al-Monitor. 

In an interview with The Guardian, Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, said Israel should release Barghouti and negotiate with him for a two-state solution. Ayalon said the only reason there is Palestinian support for Hamas is that they are perceived as the only group pushing for change.  

It is too early to tell if the current Fatah dialogue will actually lead to any breakthrough at the top leadership level, namely Abbas, but anything short of that is unlikely to appease the Palestinian people. 

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