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Abbas bungles an opportunity

Jul 08,2014 - Last updated at Jul 08,2014

It is difficult to understand the strategy of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, if he has any, following the brutal murder of an Arab youth in occupied Jerusalem last week, apparently by a group of radical Jews. The kidnapping and subsequent killing of Mohammad Abu Khdeir — an autopsy showed he was burned alive — has unleashed a wave of protests and riots among Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and in Arab towns in Israel. The Abu Khdeir murder came as a response to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths near Hebron last month. Israel blamed Hamas for the crime and waged a huge security campaign in the West Bank while launching aerial strikes against targets in Gaza.

Hamas and other groups responded by firing rockets into southern Israel and the situation could escalate into a full-fledged war at any moment.

Since the disappearance of the three Israelis, scores of Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army, many in cold blood. Hundreds of Hamas activists and leaders in the West Bank have been rounded up, including some who were released under the Shalit prisoners exchange deal in 2011. The Israeli army besieged cities and towns in the West Bank and demolished houses of suspects. It is yet to provide evidence that Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping and killing of the three Israelis.

The reaction of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the Israeli incursion has been subdued. President Abbas has resisted internal pressure from within his Fateh movement to escalate politically and on the ground. He defended security coordination between the PA and the Israeli army. And even when international media shifted its focus from the murder of the three Israelis to the killing of the young Palestinian and the riots that broke out as a result, Abbas’ reaction was restrained. He missed another opportunity when the media released a video of the brutal beating of the victim’s cousin, an American citizen, by three Israeli soldiers in East Jerusalem few days ago.

It is ironic that US reaction to the beating was much harsher than that of the Palestinian leadership. The beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir triggered a second wave of rioting by Palestinians forcing the Israeli authorities to take action. On Monday they announced that they have arrested six Israelis in connection with the Abu Khdeir murder. Israeli President Shimon Peres said they will be punished for their crime and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that justice will take its course. And yet Abbas was quiet; his only reaction was to call on the UN to investigate recent events.

President Abbas has been isolated since peace talks broke down, and following the completion of a reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas two months ago. A new non-partisan Palestinian government was formed whose main task is to prepare the ground for presidential and legislative elections later this year. Israel has lambasted Abbas and accused him of allying himself with terrorists. It vowed to punish the PA and restricted contacts with the Palestinian leadership. It responded by accelerating the building of new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu was courting Israeli extremists, who are against a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state.

In spite of the reconciliation agreement and the forming of a new government, Abbas found himself in an unenviable position. The United States appeared to have abandoned attempts to restart peace negotiations and that suited Netanyahu perfectly. He was free to pursue his own plan of judaising Arab East Jerusalem and expanding the Israeli presence in the West Bank. Effectively, he has buried the Oslo accords and set a new course for Israel’s occupation. He has turned the PA into a dysfunctional body with limited authority responsible only for keeping the peace on behalf of Israel. Abbas’ tricky rapprochement with Hamas has given Netanyahu the excuse to isolate and discredit him.

Meanwhile, the case of the three Israeli youths has allowed Netanyahu to renege on the Shalit deal, round up Hamas leaders in the West Bank and launch vicious attacks on Gaza. The Israeli army imposed collective punishment against millions of Palestinians in the West Bank amid international and Arab silence. Throughout all this Abbas did nothing, even when members of Fateh and close aides begged him to react. A released voice clip of Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat on YouTube recently underlined the growing rift between Abbas and top officials. Erekat’s angry remarks revealed that the Palestinian president refused to sign additional international treaties, including one that would admit the state of Palestine to the International Criminal Court. Furthermore, Erekat admitted that Netanyahu and his right-wing government will never recognise Palestinian rights.

The most disturbing fact is that Abbas has failed to empathise with his own people who were protesting the killing of Abu Khdeir. He missed a golden opportunity to change the rules of the game and oversee a third peaceful intifada that would have put the pressure back on Netanyahu. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry had warned recently that lack of a political settlement would unleash a new Palestinian uprising and turn Israel into an apartheid state.

The current wave of Palestinian anger should have been steered by Abbas to bring back attention to the plight of his people. In the absence of a political process and in light of the current Israeli onslaught Abbas has very few options. His people presented him with one but he apathetically stepped back. His indifference will cost the Palestinians dearly!  

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. 

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