The sacking by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas of Intelligence Chief Tawfiq Tirawi on Tuesday seems to be more than just a “formality” related to the latter reaching the age of retirement, as PA spokesmen have been saying.
Tirawi, along with a number of other PA security chiefs, spearheaded the relentless campaign against Hamas’s supporters and institutions in the West Bank, even to the point of active coordination and collaboration with Israel.
This fact, which became well known to many Palestinians, including Fatah’s followers, eventually rendered most security chiefs a serious liability, undermining Fatah’s image as a national liberation movement.
Moreover, critics, including Hamas, have used the “excesses” to portray the PA as a quisling entity working in concert with Israel against the national cause.
Last month, a number of security chiefs met with commanders of the Israeli army at the settlement of Beit El near Ramallah and reportedly told them: “Israel and the PA are allies against a common enemy, which is Hamas.”
According to Israeli journalist Nahom Barnea, who attended the meeting with the Palestinian officers’ consent, the Palestinian participants asked their Israeli “colleagues” for weapons and training for the purpose of “re-conquering the Gaza Strip”.
Moreover, according to Barnea, the Palestinians also sought to impress the Israeli occupation commanders by citing their crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, with one of them saying, “we usually do more than you ask us to do,” and “we don’t even flinch from entering the mosques when we have to.”
News of the meeting, dubbed by Fatah as a public relations disaster, spread fast through the Internet and in the Hebrew press, embarrassing Fatah and prompting some of its veteran leaders to ask Abbas to fire the security chiefs immediately.
Munzer Irsheid, a former mayor of Jericho and former security figure, now residing in Jordan, suggested in an article published in September that the security chiefs were “traitors to Fatah” and “traitors to Palestine”.
Similarly, Qaddura Fares, a Fatah MP and close confidante to imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Al-Barghouti, called for the “immediate sacking” of the security chiefs who he said didn’t represent Fatah.
The Beit El meeting, along with the perceived close collaboration between the security agencies and the Israeli occupation army, continued to reverberate in the Palestinian arena, with Hamas calling on Abbas to “oust the traitors from your midst”.
One Hamas official in the Hebron region remarked: “How can we possibly have a serious national unity dialogue with people who claim to be patriotic Palestinians in daylight hours while at night they coordinate with the Israeli army the next wave of arrests against our people?”
Earlier this month Fatah MP Isa Qaraqi castigated members of the security agencies, describing them as “panicking rabbits”. He pointed out that thousands of PA security personnel, who are supposed to provide protection for the Palestinian people, flee to their “coops” whenever Israeli occupation troops storm Palestinian population centres.
Qaraqi’s mordant broadside drew sharp reactions from Tirawi and other security officials who responded by arguing that the security agencies gave numerous martyrs for Palestine and that people who drive smart cars and receive hefty salaries were not in a position to question the nationalistic credentials of the soldiers of Palestine.
Tirawi hinted that Qaraqi was effectively aiding Hamas by questioning the integrity of the security agencies. Qaraqi’s supporters retorted forcefully by arguing that “true soldiers of Palestine” don’t spend convivial nights with Israeli occupation army chiefs. “If you are not capable of protecting us, and if you are not capable of protecting yourselves, then what is the justification for your very existence?” one Fatah activist wrote last week.
The heated exchange reflects a growing polarisation between two camps within the Fatah movement: the nationalist, or “Arafatist” camp, which is faithful to the legacy of Yasser Arafat and is determined to maintain the “purity” of the national struggle for independence and freedom; and the so-called “pragmatic camp”, namely the careerist-minded Oslo-era beneficiaries who have profited immensely as a result of the status-quo.
The first camp is represented by such people as Marwan Al-Barghouti and his supporters, Hani Al-Hassan, Farouk Qaddumi and a large number of Fatah MPs and leaders, especially at the grassroots and intermediate levels. The second camp encompasses the security chiefs, PA operatives and functionaries who are small in terms of numbers but powerful due to foreign — especially American — backing and who control the coffers of the PA, Fatah, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
President Abbas and his leading aides, such as Ahmed Qurei, Saeb Ereikat, Nabil Amr and Nabil Shaath are often seen trying to bridge the gap between the two camps in order to present Fatah as a united front, especially in the face of Hamas. However, these bridging efforts have not been successful.
Last week, when top Fatah leaders met in Amman in an effort to set a date for holding the repeatedly delayed Sixth Fatah Congress, acrimonious exchanges between Abbas and Qaddumi underscored the serious chasm between the pro- and anti-Oslo camps. Qaddumi reportedly told Abbas that “You are no Yasser Arafat” and that, “You can’t hold all these portfolios at the same time.”
Abbas is chief of the PLO, chief of Fatah and president of the PA, which means that people like Qaddumi are effectively marginalised.
Nonetheless, the real issue impeding — even preventing — the convening of the congress is that the “pragmatists” (i.e. those who would keep up the peace process no matter what Israel does) are worried that they might be voted out of office in the event that Fatah’s rank and file are allowed to decide who Fatah’s next leaders will be.
Earlier, Intesar Al-Wazeer, Um Jihad, the widow of murdered Fatah military commander Khalil Al-Wazeer (who was assassinated in Tunis by Mossad in 1989) told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that there is “a conspiracy to weaken and marginalise Fatah” by “people who claim to be Fatah”.
Al-Wazeer accused “people around Mahmoud Abbas” of being “indifferent to Fatah” and of “catering only for their own interests”. She also accused Abbas of “only consulting with a small coterie of people around him” who she suggested had a different agenda.
The meeting in Amman ended inconclusively with no definite date set for the congress, although a statement issued by Hakam Balaawi, Fatah’s secretary, said that there was a determination to hold the congress before the end of 2008. Balaawi’s statement, however, can’t be taken for granted for several reasons.
First, more than two years of intensive negotiations with Israel as well as several high-profile international peace conferences have failed to achieve a breakthrough towards ending the 41-year-old Israeli occupation. It is unlikely that Abbas and his supporters will go “empty-handed” to an all-important convention that would determine their political future.
Second, the new US administration and growing political instability in Israel is not conducive to holding a successful Fatah congress and might even militate in favour of the “radicals” who are fed-up with a peace process that has only seen more Palestinian land being stolen by Israel and the dream of Palestinian statehood shattered.
Still, failure to hold the congress before the end of 2008 would undoubtedly complicate things further within Fatah and increase frustration among the movement’s supporters, especially at the grassroots levels, which is further bad news for Abbas.