November 30, 2016 | The Weekly Standard
The Purge of Abbas’s Adversaries Looms Over Ramallah
As Mahmoud Abbas kicks off his Fatah party's congress this week in Ramallah, all eyes will be on the possible naming of a deputy or heir apparent. Fatah congresses are supposed to happen once every five years and are a chance for the party to elect new leaders in the governing bodies. This will be the seventh since the group's founding in 1959 and the first since 2009, and it comes at a crucial time. At 81 and only weeks removed from a heart operation, Abbas is entering the 12th year of a four-year presidential term with a looming uncertainty over who will succeed him.
Yet behind all the succession talk is another staple of Abbas's rule: the purging of members of his own party. In recent years, Abbas has launched an all-out inquisition into dissenters among his own ranks. He's fired rival Palestinian officials, stripped his rivals in parliament of their immunity, and even sent his Palestinian Authority security forces into unruly refugee camps to quash dissent. He has fueled his consolidation of power by summarily excommunicating members of his own party.
A bloc of Fatah dissenters met last month in the al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah to discuss how they would react to the upcoming party congress. When Abbas got wind of the meeting, he ordered the PA security forces into the camp to break up the meeting. “There were thousands of security forces here, it was a crazy atmosphere,” Younes Abu Rish, a local party leader at the meeting, told me. “The PA forces told us they cannot tolerate these types of meetings happening in the West Bank.” Hours after breaking up the meeting, Abbas released a statement: The leader of the meeting, Jihad Tummaleh, had been expelled from Fatah. “He kicked me out without a court ruling or an investigation,” Tummaleh told me in his office in al-Amari camp. “Abbas's dictatorial spirit is installed in Fatah now. I am not some employee at a business, he cannot fire me.”
Abbas broke up the meeting and expelled Tummaleh because of the meeting's connection to Mohammad Dahlan, Abbas's most-hated rival. Expelled by Abbas in 2011, Dahlan has made his home in the UAE since then, advising the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and courting regional allies. He's released tapes of Egyptian intelligence officials making fun of Abbas and fomented unrest in the West Bank by pumping money to his supporters there. When the Fatah congress was announced earlier this year, Dahlan and his supporters held their own conference in Egypt. Though billed as a discussion on Gaza and Egyptian-Palestinian relations, many in the Abbas crowd saw it for what it really was: a counter-Fatah conference. Dahlan may lack overwhelming popularity on the Palestinian street, but by exiling him Abbas has turned him into a lightning rod for the opposition. As Abu Rish puts it: “Abbas doesn't realize that the way he attacks Dahlan actually fuels Dahlan.”
Dahlan and Tummaleh aren't Abbas's only targets. In February, Fatah parliamentarian Najat Abu Bakr accused one of Abbas's ministers of pocketing cash for a water well deal. She was then summoned for arrest by the PA security services before seeking refuge in the PA's parliamentary building. The timing of the incident was peculiar: only weeks before she had met with Dahlan in Cairo. By August, Abu Bakr and three other Fatah members had been expelled from the party for their connections to Dahlan. Weeks later, Ahmed Izz al-Halawa, a leader of Fatah's loosely-affiliated terror wing in Nablus, was arrested by PA forces for an incident involving the shooting of PA police members. He was beaten to death by PA forces while in captivity, and at his funeral thousands took to the streets to protest against Abbas and the PA.
All of this looms ahead of this week's Fatah congress. Abbas has taken unprecedented steps to silence dissent within his own party. For one, he has culled the amount of delegates attending from over 2,000 in 2009 to 1,400. For another, he has changed the location from a hotel in Bethlehem at the last conference to his headquarters in Ramallah. “He's having it at the muqata'a under his guns,” says Tummaleh. “There is no doubt about who is in control.”
The congress this week will allow Abbas to solidify his purges of dissenters within his own party. At the last congress, members of Abbas' presidential guard roamed the balloting areas and in one instance instructed a delegate on who was “the president's man.” This time, in his headquarters, Abbas will be able to reward his loyalists and sideline his rivals. As Dimitri Diliani, a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, told me: “We used to call Arafat a dictator, but compared with Abu Mazen, Arafat was a champion of democracy.”
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley.