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The fall of Abbas: Why such surprise?

By Avi Davis
web posted September 15, 2003

Mahmoud Abbas

Shock is a word that many have registered to describe their reaction to the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Prime Minister. Reading the statements of foreign ministers one might believe that no one outside the Palestinian cities believed that Abbas could possibly fail. But a careful reading of Middle East history over the past 100 years would have warned anyone that Abbas never had a chance. Moderates don't rule the Palestinians. Their political culture has never been given to temperance. History, in fact, reveals quite the opposite.

In 1922, the first High Commissioner of the British Mandate, Herbert Samuels, sought to fulfill Britain's pledges to Arabs and Jews by instituting a Legislative Council, a body that would represent Arabs, Jews, Christians and all other minorities in proportion to their population numbers. At the time there were 650,000 Arabs living in Palestine and 87,000 Jews. Within Palestinian Arab circles, fearsome argument raged on whether to accept the Samuels' plan which would have been their first step on the road towards self government. While the leaders of the Jewish community accepted the plan, Arab nationalists ultimately dismissed it, refusing to adhere to the notion that Jews and Arabs could one day live peaceably side by side. Moderate supporters of the plan were ostracized, branded as traitors and the backlash marked the rise to power of the rabid anti-semite Haj Amin al Husseini.

In 1938, in the midst of the three year Arab rebellion against the British, many moderate Arabs, particularly the members of the wealthy Nashashibi clan, argued heatedly against continuing the insurrection which had resulted in enormous economic hardship and political loss for the Arabs. The answer given by the hardline leadership of al Husseini was definitive. A wide scale crack down, involving both assassination and revenge killing ensued, forcing hundreds of members of the Nashashibi clan and others to flee. Among those killed were the mayor of Hebron, the mukhtar of Caeserea and Hassan Sidqi al Dajani ,one of the most prominent members of the Jerusalem Municipal Council – all men who could have played a vital role in accepting, rather than rejecting the U.N Partition Plan of 1947. Many other political leaders who fled would never return.

In 1968, in the aftermath of Israel's conquest of the West Bank and Gaza during the Six Day War, the Eshkol government floated the idea of limited self-government for the Arab population - a courtesy denied to them under 19 years of Jordanian rule. The opening of the border to both economic opportunity and health services for the Arab community brought an immediate improvement to Arab life and many were prepared to accommodate the Israelis. Sensing a challenge to its annihilationist agenda, Arafat's Fatah guerillas infiltrated the West Bank and embarked on a violent campaign of intimidation, enforcing silence on many of the West Bank intellectuals and moderates. By 1969, it became clear that one's life as a political leader in the West Bank and Gaza would be conditioned on loyalty to the PLO. The opportunity for self-government was lost.

During the first Intifada (1987-92) - a locally led uprising which took the exiled PLO by surprise - hundreds of Palestinians were killed as "collaborators," a loose term used to denote those who later came to oppose the PLO's wresting of control from the local leadership or who had simply found employment in Israel. A little known fact is that during those years more than 700 such collaborators were murdered by Palestinian death squads- far more than died from clashes with the IDF. Once again Arafat's henchmen, mimicking the earlier campaign of the al-Husseini clan, sought to eliminate opposition to their control and snuffing out any real voice of moderation or opposition.

It should come as no surprise then that Mahmoud Abbas' campaign to challenge hardliners and terrorists has failed. Palestinians are inclined, through decades of intimidation, coercion and doctrinal inculcation, into accepting the rule of revolutionaries and rejectionists. Little wonder indeed that it is the autocratic and militant Yasser Arafat, and not the seemingly pliable and pandering Mahmoud Abbas who has won the heart of the Palestinian street. And yet the lessons of history remain unlearned. Violence has never nourished the permanent interests of the Palestinians. It has only served to divert their painful trudge through history into poverty, humiliation and political oblivion. Their real tragedy is that no leader among them remains standing who has either the courage or political muscle to hector them on the palpable failures of the past or the avoidable pitfalls of the future.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for Jewsweek.com.

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