Abbas criticized for World Cup visit amid Gaza clashes

Mirroring critique of Netanyahu for similar visit, Palestinian commentators take PA president to task for plans to watch soccer match during ongoing violent clashes

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the La Cisterna Municipal Stadium during a visit with soccer club Deportivo Palestino, in Santiago, Chile, May 10, 2018.(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the La Cisterna Municipal Stadium during a visit with soccer club Deportivo Palestino, in Santiago, Chile, May 10, 2018.(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is facing domestic criticism for his decision to attend Sunday’s World Cup final in Moscow amid ongoing unrest in Gaza, where Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups have exchanged fire resulting in casualties on both sides of the tense border.

Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rjoub announced last month that Abbas would travel to Russia for the game and would meet with President Vladimir Putin to discuss “bilateral relations and the latest political developments.”

During their meeting on Saturday, Putin said he was pleased to be able to discuss the problems facing the Palestinians.

“I’m glad of the opportunity to tell you about the contact we have had with your neighbors, and leaders of various countries,” Putin said, in quotes carried by Russian agencies.

“I know that the situation in the region is difficult and we are grateful that you have used the World Cup as a reason to come to Moscow,” the Russian president added.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 14, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / Yuri KADOBNOV)

But mirroring criticism leveled at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a similar visit to Moscow last week, some Palestinian commentators have taken Abbas to task for his plans to stay on in Moscow and attend the World Cup final between France and Croatia.

“At a time when widespread Israeli aggression against Gaza is being launched and the children of the Strip are being killed… President Abbas is going to celebrate and relax in Russia, watching the World Cup final,” Ibrahim Madhoun, a columnist for the Hamas-linked al-Resalah, said in a tweet. “We are standing before a president who is isolated from his people and cause.”

Responding to the criticism, Fatah Central Committee member Abbas Zaki defended the decision and contended that the Palestinian leader cannot reject an invitation from his Russian counterpart.

“The president cannot turn down an invitation from the Russian president,” Zaki told the Times of Israel. “He is going to the game because Putin invited him and we need to remain very close to the Russian president.”

In their meeting, Abbas reportedly told Putin of his concerns over US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the country’s embassy to Jerusalem.

“We are resisting attempts by the Americans to impose their decisions on the most sensitive problems of Palestine,” Russian news agencies quoted him as saying in translated remarks.

According to a readout of the meeting by the official PA news outlet Wafa, Abbas and Putin discussed “issues of mutual concern for Russia and Palestine” as well as “the latest developments in Palestine.” It is unclear if Abbas brought up any issue related to Gaza. The readout made no mention of the coastal enclave.

Abbas has been imposing sanctions on Hamas in a bid to force the terrorist group to give up control of the coastal enclave, which it seized from Abbas’s Fatah group in 2007.

The talks came as Palestinians in Gaza fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells into Israel and the IDF bombed dozens of Hamas targets in the widest daytime airstrikes since the 2014 war.

Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli air strike on Gaza City on July 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Three Israelis were wounded when rockets hit a home and a synagogue in the border town of Sderot. They were taken to the hospital in moderate condition. On the other side of the border, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said that two teenagers, aged 15 and 16, were killed in one of the IDF strikes on Saturday, on a building that the military said was used by Hamas for urban combat training and was situated over a tunnel that led into a “massive” underground network in Gaza.

Last Wednesday, Netanyahu also traveled to Moscow where he met with Putin and attended the World Cup semifinal game between England and Croatia.

While the Israeli prime minister had repeatedly billed his trip as geared toward discussing Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria, Putin appeared to contradict the claim when he welcomed Netanyahu to “your private visit to the FIFA World Cup,” according to a readout provided by the Kremlin.

“Nonetheless, this does not deny us the pleasure of meeting and discussing current issues,” Putin added.

Israeli opposition leaders used the incident to highlight the fact Netanyahu has not met with residents of Gaza border communities despite over a hundred days of unrest in the area, saying the trip proved he preferred to watch soccer instead.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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