KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures beneath a poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat / (photo credit: FINBARR O’REILLY / REUTERS)
On January 15, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will enter his 15th year of his four-year term of office amid reports of a behind-the-scenes war of succession in Ramallah.
According to the reports, Hussein Al-Sheikh, head of the PA’s General Authority for Civil Affairs and member of the Fatah Central Committee, and Majed Faraj, head of the PA General Intelligence Service, have been working to prepare for the post-Abbas era.
The reports said that Al-Sheikh and Faraj have been trying to convince PLO and Fatah officials to support PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh as Abbas’s successor.
Mahmoud Aloul, deputy Fatah chairman, is also seen by several Fatah members as a “leading and natural candidate” to succeed Abbas.
The efforts of Al-Sheikh and Faraj seem to have enraged some Palestinian officials, including Jibril Rajoub, Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association and veteran member of the Fatah Central Committee.
Palestinian sources in Ramallah said on Saturday that Rajoub supports the candidacy of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a five life sentence in prison for his role in terrorist attacks against Israelis during the Second Intifada.
“Rajoub has been complaining about the alliance between Al-Sheikh, Faraj and Shtayyeh,” Fatah officials told the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. “That’s why Rajoub has recently been in contact with Barghouti, and has even visited him in prison a number of times.”
The sources said that Rajoub and his supporters have accused Al-Sheikh and Faraj of working to stop Barghouti from running in the next PA presidential election, if and when it takes place. The two Palestinian officials are also opposed to the release of Barghouti from Israeli prison, the sources claimed.
Other sources revealed that Rajoub has been waging a smear campaign against Al-Sheikh and Faraj, accusing them of filing “false reports” to Abbas about various issues related to the conduct of senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah.
Rajoub is also reported to have denounced – in private conversations – both Al-Sheikh and Faraj, dubbing them “collaborators” with Israel.
Al-Sheikh responded by posting on Facebook a photo of himself and Faraj with a comment reading: “To those who agree or disagree, this is my brother, my companion and my loyal friend [Faraj]. Those who are unhappy are welcome to drink from the water of the Dead Sea.”
A Facebook page supporting the head of the General Intelligence Service shared the photo, reminding Palestinians that Faraj and Al-Sheikh had previously served time in Israeli prison: “The honorable people will continue to pay the price of loyalty to their homeland. The Palestinians know the truth about the history of all the honorable people.”
The message behind these posts: Al-Sheikh and Faraj are not “traitors” or “collaborators.”
Al-Sheikh and Faraj also arranged a meeting with Abbas together with Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of the jailed Fatah leader, and posted a photo of the encounter on several Palestinian media outlets.
The purpose of the meeting was to refute claims that Al-Sheikh and Faraj are involved in a “conspiracy” against Marwan Barghouti. The meeting with Abbas was aimed at taunting Rajoub and his followers.
Hatem Abdel Qader, member of the Fatah Central Committee, was recently quoted as saying that Barghouti was planning to run in the election.
Abbas, Al-Sheikh and Faraj are said to be opposed to Barghouti’s purported bid to run in the election.
Rajoub, for his part, said in an interview with the PA’s Palestine TV that Abbas, who celebrated his 84th birthday in November 2019, will not seek re-election.
Rajoub’s statement came shortly after Al-Sheikh announced that Abbas would be Fatah’s sole candidate in the upcoming election. Rajoub has also denied slandering Al-Sheikh and Faraj. “I’m proud of all the brothers and sisters in Fatah,” he remarked.
It’s unclear at this stage whether Abbas intends to seek re-election.
In September 2019, Abbas announced his intention to hold long overdue presidential and parliamentary elections. However, he has still not issued an official announcement setting a date for the vote.
Abbas and senior PA officials have emphasized in recent weeks that the elections would not take place unless Israel allows east Jerusalem residents to cast their ballots. They have also insisted that Israel permit east Jerusalem residents to vote inside the Jerusalem Municipality city boundaries, and not in the West Bank.
Moreover, it remains unclear whether Barghouti would indeed run in the election.
A PA official in Ramallah said that Abbas and some Fatah leaders have asked Barghouti not to run in the presidential election in return for being placed at the head of the Fatah list that would contest the parliamentary vote.
According to the report in Al-Akhbar, Fatah officials have asked Egypt to pressure Israel to include Barghouti in a future prisoner exchange agreement. The Egyptians have endorsed the request, the report added.
The official told The Jerusalem Post that deposed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, who is based in the United Arab Emirates and maintains close ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, has also been wooing Barghouti. “President Abbas and many Fatah leaders are strongly opposed to Dahlan,” he said. “It would be very bad for Barghouti if he chooses to align himself with Dahlan.”