Palestinian Authority chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is pushing the internal Palestinian situation towards a dangerous and unnecessary crisis. He has called a referendum supposedly to gain public endorsement for a document written by Hamas and Fatah members held in Israeli jails which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in all the territories occupied in 1967. But Abbas’ ploy has nothing to do with hastening the creation of such a state, and everything to do with Fatah’s inability to come to terms with its defeat in last January’s legislative elections.
Without consulting PA prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, Abbas announced that Hamas would have ten days to accept the prisoners’ document without any changes or he would call a referendum. Hamas made clear that it views the referendum as illegal. Palestinian law makes no provision for referendums, and only the legislative council, in which Hamas has a huge majority, can amend the law. No matter; Abbas, like President Bush, can seem to find powers to do anything he wants as the need arises. Following the collapse of talks between Hamas and Fatah on June 5, Abbas announced that he would go ahead with the referendum by “presidential decree.” The next morning he announced a three-day extension of his deadline to allow for “dialogue,” but made clear that Hamas had to take or leave the document as is.
Bypassing the Hamas-led authority, Abbas called together the PLO executive committee, unelected and unaccountable except to itself, but dominated by his allies, to authorize the referendum. This is in line with Abbas’ recent claims that it is the PLO, and not the PA, that is the true representative of Palestinians. This could be convincing except for the fact that, since signing the 1993 Oslo Accord, Fatah leaders have dismantled the PLO as a truly representative body and invested all their efforts into building up the PA as their powerbase. Once they lost their grip on the PA, they suddenly rediscovered the PLO. But the lack of sincerity can be measured by the fact that Abbas has made no mention whatsoever of including all Palestinians — the majority of whom live in forced exile and diaspora — in the referendum. No referendum carried out only in the occupied territories can represent the will of Palestinians as a whole.
Indeed, there is no reason at all to hold such a referendum even if the goal is to advance the peace process. One would think that from the hurry Abbas is in, Israel is desperately offering the Palestinians a state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip and only Hamas stubborness stands in the way. The exact opposite is the case. It has long been clear that a majority of Palestinians living in the occupied territories accept the two-state solution and supported the Oslo Accords hoping they would lead to that outcome. Hamas leaders have signaled their own willingness to recognize Israel and accept a state, but only on the basis of equality and reciprocity. What Hamas leaders argue is that unconditional Palestinian concessions in the past have only led to more Israeli demands. Yet despite Israel’s continued assassination campaign, Hamas has held to a unilateral truce for more than one year. It is Israel that has resolutely rejected the two-state solution in practice. It continues to build new settlements across the West Bank, and its prime minister Ehud Olmert just returned from Washington where he sought and gained US endorsement for his plan to unilaterally annex much of the West Bank making the state Palestinians want an impossibility. Abbas, meanwhile, in order to prove his usefulness, if not to his own people, then at least to Israel and the US, continues to offer concessions in exchange for nothing.
The reality behind the referendum threat is that Abbas and his allies inside and outside the country are looking for a way to undermine Hamas’ legitimacy which was won fair and square at the ballot box. It would appear that the plan is to call a referendum on an uncontroversial issue — given the broad Palestinian consensus in favor of the two-state solution — and then, if it passes by the expected large majority, claim that this is specifically an endorsement of Abbas and his discredited faction and a rejection of Hamas. If the Hamas-led authority tries to prevent the referendum, Abbas may use this as a pretext to dissolve the legislative council and declare an “emergency” or call new elections which Fatah would make sure to win.
There is a background to all this: Just after the January election, the New York Times reported on February 14, US and Israeli officials met at the “highest level” at the State Department to plot the downfall of Hamas by “starving” the Palestinian Authority. “Fatah now is obsessed with undoing this election as soon as possible,” Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster close to Fatah was quoted saying, “Israel and Washington want to do it over too.” Since Hamas won office, some Fatah leaders have done all they can to obstruct Hamas, publicly blaming its leaders for the US-EU-Israeli siege and refusing to submit security forces to the authority of the Hamas-led interior ministry. Ha’aretz reported on May 28 that Abbas requested permission from Israel to increase his “presidential guard” from 2,000 to 10,000 men, creating a personal militia directly under his control, to add to the other PA security forces under Fatah leadership. With the cooperation of the Israeli government, the Abbas militia will be armed by a third country (Ha’aretz, May 29). Israel’s goal in transferring the weapons, a senior defense official told Ha’aretz, is “to enable Abu Mazen (Abbas’ nickname) to deal with” Hamas and other Islamic groups (May 26). “Time is running out for Hamas,” a Fatah security official told the Sunday Times of London (May 28). Accusing Hamas of plotting to assassinate Abbas, the official declared, “We’ll choose the right time and place for the military showdown. But after that there will be no more of Hamas’s militias.”
This is extremely dangerous and reckless talk. Hamas leaders have wisely stated their determination not to be pulled into civil war, but, worryingly, clashes between Fatah militias and Hamas members have led to mounting casualties.
Against this context, Abbas’ referendum needs to be seen for what it is — another sordid attempt in the Bush administration style to use “democracy” not to reveal the will of the people, but to frustrate it. Palestinians should be aware of the danger, but should not be distracted; they should remain fully focused on opposing the apartheid state that Israel, with western connivance, is building in their country.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in The Electronic Intifada (6 June 2006).