Palestinian outrage forces Abbas to back down on war crimes report

By Kim Bullimore

A special session of the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on October 16 voted for a resolution calling for the adoption of the “Goldstone report” on Israel’s December-January war on Gaza. The resolution, passed by 25 to six, with 11 abstentions, also called on Israel to cease illegal settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and to allow Palestinians unhindered access to the Aqsa mosque. As a result of the vote, the Goldstone report will go to the UN General Assembly for discussion and vote.

The UNHRC earlier this year commissioned an investigation of Israel’s 22-day war, which killed around 1400 Palestinians. Written by a four-member fact-finding team headed by South African jurist and Zionist Richard Goldstone, the report included more than 20,000 pages of information, including 1200 photographs, 30 videos and 188 interviews with victims of the war, as well as with medical, legal and human rights experts. It found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes, with Israel bearing the most responsibility for the war and the crimes.

US pressure

The UNHRC vote, however, was delayed two weeks by the decision of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on October 2 to withdraw support for an initial resolution on the Goldstone report. According to veteran Israeli reporter Amira Hass, writing on October 4 in the Tel Aviv Haaretz newspaper, Abbas’ decision to delay the vote came after a meeting with the US consul general and without the knowledge of the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) or Salaam Fayyad, the man appointed by Abbas to act as the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister.

In the days following the decision, 14 Palestinian NGOs, including the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which compiled the most accurate record of the dead in Gaza, issued a statement condemning the decision as an insult to the Palestinian victims of Israel’s war. A similar statement by the Ramallah-based Palestinian NGO Network noted that in postponing the vote, Abbas and the PA had “wasted an important opportunity towards ensuring accountability of the State of Israel for their war crimes and human rights violations”. Abbas’ action was also criticised by members of the PA cabinet he appointed when the popularly elected Hamas-led PA was ousted in June 2007, and by members of his own Fatah party and other members of the PLO. Bassem Khoury, Abbas’ minister of national economy, resigned in protest at the decision.

In the October 4 Jerusalem Post, Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan attempted to distance Fatah from Abbas’ decision, saying that the Fatah leadership had not been consulted. The decision was also criticised by a senior PLO official and outgoing ambassador to Egypt, Nabil Amr, who until recently was a close associate and adviser to Abbas. Amr announced that in response to Abbas’ decision, he was resigning from all posts in the PA. Criticism also came from other PLO member organisations, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In a statement on October 8, the PFLP denounced Abbas and the PA for “adaptation and conciliation to American and Israeli dictates”, saying the decision to postpone the discussion and vote on the Goldstone report was a crime against the Palestinian people.

‘Unanimous revulsion’

Palestinian protesters denounced Abbas on the streets of Ramallah and occupied East Jerusalem, accusing him of betraying the Palestinian people and those who died in the Israeli assault on Gaza. Calls for Abbas’ resignation were also initiated inside Israel by the Palestinian Israeli political party Balad. The call by Balad was unprecedented, being the first time that a Palestinian Israeli party has publicly challenged the Palestinian leadership in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Criticism of Abbas was also swift and widespread internationally, with more than 30 Palestinian organisations across Europe issuing a call for Abbas to step down immediately from the office of PA president.

According to Palestinian writer Khaled Amayreh in the October 8-14 edition of the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, “no other act by the PA/PLO since the signing of the Oslo Accords more than 16 years ago has met such unanimous revulsion”. Amayreh went on to note that since “most of the criticism [of Abbas] came from secular groups, including organisations associated with the PLO itself”, this refuted “the claim that the widespread indignation was part of the public relations showdown between Fatah and the Islamist camp”.

Hamas’ response to Abbas’ decision reveals that it was also caught off guard by the backlash the decision generated. While it initially criticised Abbas and Fatah for deferring the vote, the criticism was relatively muted. This reflected the stance adopted by Hamas in the recent weeks, which has toned down its public criticism of Fatah in order to facilitate national unity talks taking place between the two organisations. However, with the almost universal outrage mounting in the wake of Abbas’ decision, Hamas stepped up its rhetoric, echoing more strongly many of the views already articulated by the Palestinian “street” both in the OPT and around the world.

Reeling from the backlash, Abbas attempted to backtrack, announcing that he would establish a commission of inquiry into the decision, while also attempting to blame the decision onto his aides, saying that he was misled and lied to by some of his advisers. As the reaction escalated, Abbas also announced that the Palestinian representative to the UN would push for a special session of the UNHRC to discuss the Goldstone report.

Flawed strategy

According to a range of Palestinian political analysts, Abbas’ action seriously undermined his authority, the credibility of the PA and the standing of Fatah. Abbas’ capitulation to US and Israeli pressure, however, comes as no surprise given his past performance. His decision to postpone the vote in the UNHRC reflects the fundamentally flawed strategy of the Fatah leadership, of which Abbas is a leading proponent. Rather than seeking to mobilise the Palestinian masses to resist Israel’s illegal 42-year occupation, Abbas and the Fatah leaders surrounding him have sought to rely on Washington to pressure Israel into engaging with the “peace process” and to accede to the Palestinian demand for statehood.

On October 5, Amira Hass noted in Haaretz that Abbas’ actions reveal his total “disregard for popular action, and his lack of faith in its accumulative power and the place of mass movements in processes of change”. Hass went on: “This is a leadership that believes in negotiation as a strategic path to obtaining a state and integration in the world that the United States is shaping”. As a result, the decision to postpone the vote at the UNHRC “was not an isolated gaffe” but part of a pattern of showing “disregard for, and lack of interest in, the knowledge and experience accumulated in the inhabitants of the occupied territories’ prolonged popular struggle”. This disregard, Hass stated, has led not only to many errors but also to a “chronic submissiveness” that has the Palestinian Authority “now functioning more than ever before as a subcontractor for the IDF [Israeli Defence Force], the Shin Bet security service and the Civil Administration”.

While Abbas has seriously undermined his credibility and that of the PA among the Palestinian people, this has not resulted, as yet, in the complete collapse of the PA. This is because both Abbas and the PA continue to be propped up with funds and other support by the US government. Despite this, the outrage at the PA’s acquiescence and collaboration with the US and Israel against the national interests of the Palestinian people has opened up more political space for grassroots organising and the rebuilding a broad-based popular resistance movement that seeks to mobilise the Palestinian people in opposition to Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonisation.

Such a movement existed during the first intifada, only to be cut down by Arafat when he secretly negotiated the Oslo Accords. Far from heralding Palestinian independence and freedom, the accords only entrenched Israel’s occupation. Now with the complete acquiescence and humiliation of Abbas and the PA, many Palestinians are once again seeing the need to rebuild a broad popular resistance that works hand in hand with the growing international movement to end Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.