Middle East

Palestinian Elections

Abbas Mends Fences

Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabeh with PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas

Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah receives the Chairman of the Palestinian Organization (PLO) Mahmoud Abbas(L) on December 13, 2004 at his office in Bayan Palace.(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

As presidential elections draw closer, the number of candidates drops. At press time, three candidates had dropped out of the race, including imprisoned West Bank secretary Marwan Barghouti, who on December 12, said he was withdrawing his candidacy “for the sake of the higher interests of the Palestinian people.” Earlier in the week, both independent candidate Abdel Sattar Qassem and Speaker Hasan Khreisheh announced their withdrawal from the race. Meanwhile, head of the PLO and Fateh presidential candidate, Mahmoud Abbas continued his tour of Arab countries in a bid to repair damaged relations with several Arab leaders.

Barghouti has been in news headlines over the past few weeks for first announcing his endorsement of Abbas’ candidacy, then rescinding this decision at the last minute to announce his own candidacy and finally to withdraw from the race and declare his support for Abbas once again.

In a letter read by Fateh Revolutionary Council member Ahmad Ghneim in Ramallah, Barghouti said he supported Fateh candidate Mahmoud Abbas and stressed that his nomination was not a to challenge anyone. “It was to send a message that the Palestinian people are living under exceptional conditions,” he said.

Earlier in the week, on December 8, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) Speaker Hasan Khreisheh announced that he would withdraw his candidacy, saying he feared elections would be incomplete since several parties were boycotting the elections, which would affect the election’s legitimacy.

Then on December 13, independent candidate Abdel Sattar Qassem from Nablus said he would not run either. “The process is moving away from honest and free elections and there is an absence of the spirit of free and honest competition,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israel has said it would withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities one day before elections are to take place for a period of 72 hours. Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz told the Herzelia Conference on December 13 that Israel was looking for a long-term interim agreement since “there is no possibility at the present time for a permanent one.”

He also said Israel is ready to hand the Gaza Strip and West Bank cities over to Palestinian control if resistance is halted.

PLO head Mahmoud Abbas, on a shuttle tour of Arab countries, said in Amman on December 12 that Israel was to blame for not providing the appropriate climate for elections. He also denounced the killing of 7-year-old Rana Siyam on December 10 in her home in Khan Younis by Israeli artillery fire.

Abbas is seemingly mending fences with a number of Arab countries, primarily Kuwait. On December 12, upon arrival in Kuwait – the first official visit of a senior Palestinian official since the first Gulf War in 1990 – Abu Mazen officially apologized for the Palestinian pro-Iraqi stance during that war, which caused a deep rift in relations between the two peoples and the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait. Abbas said he hoped his visit would, “open a new chapter in relations between the two countries.”

Earlier on December 8, Abbas, along with Prime Minister Ahmad Qrei’ made the first official Palestinian visit to Lebanon in 20 years. Abbas discussed with parliament head Nabih Bari the refugees in Lebanon and also the possibility of opening a Palestinian embassy in Beirut.

On the last stint of his tour on December 14 to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyad, Abbas said in a press conference that the leadership rejected any plan to resettle refugees in Arab countries. His statements came following a proposal by the Israeli foreign ministry general secretary to resettle refugees in Arab countries or to rehabilitate existing refugee camps in the West Bank. Also, according to Israeli army radio, Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom said he would request from donor countries and the World Bank to allocate funds for this plan.

“An opportunity has arisen after [President] Arafat’s death to eliminate the issue of Palestinian refugees from any further agreement,” said an unnamed Israeli source.

Meanwhile, Israeli incursions, deaths and Palestinian operations in the occupied territories continued. On the evening of December 12, four Israeli soldiers were killed and six others wounded when members of Palestine’s Izzedin Al Qassam Brigades and Fateh’s Black Hawks dynamited a tunnel beneath a military post at the Rafah Crossing.

Israel immediately closed the crossing and set up checkpoints and roadblocks throughout the Strip, effectively dividing it into three parts.

On December 13, Israeli joint chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon said Israel was planning a major incursion into the Gaza Strip similar to the Defensive Shield Operation in the West Bank in 2002 following the tunnel incident.

A day later, it looked like this was just what Israel intended. National security force member 29-year-old Mohammed Khafejeh was shot and killed near the Yasser Arafat International Airport and 15 homes were demolished in Khan Younis. Two other homes were demolished in Hebron.

On December 13, a bomb exploded under the car of a Hamas operative in Damascus, just moments after he, his wife and daughter got out. Three people were slightly injured in the assassination attempt.

“This is not the first time the Zionist enemy targets Palestinian cadres abroad,” said Mushir Masri, a Hamas spokesperson in Gaza. Syrian authorities put the blame squarely on the Mossad but would not release any further information about the man, including his name.

That day, Ihsan Shawahneh, the Nablus commander of the Qassam Brigades was killed and three Israeli soldiers were injured in an armed clash in the city.

Gaza clearly took the brunt of Israeli measures this week, especially in Khan Younis. On December 11, seven children were injured from shrapnel from a tank shell fired at an elementary school and on December 10, Rana Siyam was killed when a tank shell entered her Khan Younis home, striking her in the head.

Three people were killed in Gaza on December 9, which also saw an assassination attempt on the general commander of the Popular Resistance Committees. A missile was fired at Samhadaneh’s car, in which he and three others were traveling, just missing them.

That day, an Aqsa Brigades’ commander, Mahmoud Madhoun was also targeted but survived, when a missile struck his home. “Israel’s return to assassinations will sabotage all efforts to achieve calm,” said spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdeineh.