RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ attendance at the funeral of Israeli President Shimon Peres Sept. 30, heading a Palestinian delegation, raised popular anger. This anger escalated after Palestinian security members in civilian clothes, who were participating in a Fatah march in support of Abbas, attacked a youth march (according to the participants) — which was called for on Facebook — in Ramallah's city center on Oct. 4 to express opposition to Abbas' attendance, injuring a number of participants, most notably Muhanad Karaja, a lawyer with human rights organization Al-Dameer.
Karaja told Al-Monitor that a group of youths who wanted to organize a march in Ramallah invited him in his capacity as lawyer of Al-Dameer to document any attacks by security forces.
He said that before he was beaten, he had documented two cases where security forces in civilian clothes who participated in Fatah’s march and whom he personally knows attacked participants in the march. “When security forces noticed my presence, they said, 'This is their lawyer.' More than 10 members then started beating me up with their hands and tearing my clothes off before I was taken to the hospital,” he said.
Also, the military intelligence department arrested Osama Mansour, the director of public relations at the military liaison office, and suspended him from work on Oct. 1 over a Facebook post a day earlier, where he called on Abbas not to attend Peres' funeral. His detention was extended for 15 days on charges of failing to obey military orders requiring that men in uniform do not express a political opinion. Moreover, people took to the streets in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 30 to condemn Abbas taking part in the funeral.
Voices were raised within Fatah to object Abbas' attendance. Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq Tirawi said Oct. 1 that he was against Abbas’ participation in the funeral and that Fatah’s Central Committee was not consulted in this regard. The leadership of Fatah's student wing, the Shabiba movement, affirmed Sept. 30 its rejection of such participation.
Yet, the movement’s official position came to support Abbas. On Oct. 4, Fatah issued a strongly worded statement warning that “an iron fist will be used against anyone who thinks of causing prejudice to Fatah and its leaders, and that strive seekers and cowards will not be tolerated."
Khader Adnan, a leader of Islamic Jihad and a member of the public freedoms committee that was established following the reconciliation agreement among Palestinian factions, told Al-Monitor, “Marches are repeatedly being suppressed, which shows that the Palestinian Authority is threatening whoever disagrees with the Palestinian leadership. It is a serious escalation that requires a firm stance by the factions and human rights organizations.”
Adnan said, “The language of threats and violence used against those opposing [Abbas'] attendance provides a cover for the use of violence against factions and members opposing the PA.” He stressed, "Resorting to security forces in civilian clothes is a dangerous precedent in our society and nation.”
For her part, Khalida Jarrar, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told Al-Monitor, “The attack of a peaceful march proves that the PA and security services are taking a serious trajectory in attacking demonstrators who took to the streets to express their opinion. It is part of an attempt to muzzle and terrorize the people and prevent peaceful protests. Security services are resorting to the use of force.”
Jarrar confirmed that the attack against a peaceful march indicates that the PA and its security services failed to understand that tension and resentment prevail over the people that reject the president’s participation in Peres' funeral. She said that this requires the forces and factions to hold an immediate meeting to take measures that preserve civil peace, and the security services to halt these practices immediately and be held accountable, because what happened expresses a dangerous trajectory toward muzzling the people by beating them up.
Local media reported Sept. 30 that Abbas’ participation in the funeral came after he was invited by Peres’ family to attend the funeral as a family guest. Muwaffaq Matar, a Fatah Revolutionary Council member and chief executive of Fatah's Information and Culture Commission, confirmed this to Al-Monitor.
Political author and analyst Khalil Shaheen told Al-Monitor that Abbas’ attendance at the funeral did more harm than good. This participation caused an internal crisis that came to light when the security forces attacked the participants of the popular march, which is an opinion that is in line with Palestinian factions’ condemnation and citizens’ rejection on social media.
Shaheen said, “The Palestinian position opposing Abbas’ participation emanates from the fact that Peres is a war criminal, and despite that, Abbas attended his funeral. This is while the PA claims that it wants Israeli war criminals to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. It makes the PA discourse unconvincing for the Palestinian public opinion.”
He added, “The attack on those opposing Abbas’ attendance confirms that the PA is intolerant of any opposition to the official position and that the freedom of opinion and expression is restricted.” He said that this expresses “a tendency toward a monopoly in decision-making and restricted freedoms of those who are opposed. This will cause prejudice to the structure of the political regime and turn it into a regime that excludes all those who have a different opinion.”
For his part, Matar stressed, “Diversity of opinion and stances is sacred for us. Yet the accusation of treason in political issues is unacceptable for us and we will never accept that Abbas is accused of treason. His political and national positions are unchangeable.” This was in reference to several Facebook posts and condemnations by the Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that accused Abbas of “great treason.”
Matar continued, “The president's attendance at the funeral was unfairly handled. One must not forget that the president has the right to view things differently. He is a diplomat and maker of Palestinian politics, particularly since political and diplomatic action differs from the popular action; Abbas answered the call of Peres' family. His participation was an opportunity to dispel the Israeli propaganda that there is no partner for peace.”
For his part, Adnan al-Damiri, the PA security services spokesman, spoke to Al-Monitor about the march that took place in central Ramallah, saying, “What happened was exaggerated by some, but we dealt with it and investigated whether or not the security services were at fault. However, some have depicted the incidents as if the Palestinian security [services] were the aggressor, while overlooking [the fact] that these were mere disputes between political parties.”
He said, “We are not responsible for what happened or for breaking the clashes,” referring to the fact that what happened was a fight between the Fatah movement and the PFLP.
Damiri further noted, “We are not a party to the fight that erupted between [the participants] of the two marches. It has been ascertained that the security [services] did not have anything to do with the fight. Anyone of the participants who felt attacked can file a complaint to the military public prosecution if he has the name of the officer who attacked him. But it is unacceptable to make accusations without proof or to claim that those who attacked [the participants] were security men in civilian clothes.”
The public resentment caused by Abbas’ attendance at the funeral and the way the PA has dealt with those opposing his participation raise fear that the PA pursues a policy to repress its opponents, which would affect the national internal ties.