Arafat’s nephew returns to Gaza, mounting challenge against aging, unpopular Abbas

Nasser al-Kidwa builds support in terror-ruled Strip, calling Palestinian Authority ‘totalitarian’ and destructive, as PA’s rule appears increasingly tenuous

Nasser al-Kidwa, right, former minister for foreign affairs of the Palestinian Authority, in Gaza City on September 24, 2022. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Nasser al-Kidwa, right, former minister for foreign affairs of the Palestinian Authority, in Gaza City on September 24, 2022. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

A year after fleeing the West Bank, a nephew of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has returned to Gaza and is challenging his uncle’s embattled successor, 86-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas.

Nasser al-Kidwa, 69, a former Palestinian Authorty foreign minister, branded Abbas’s Palestinian Authority as “totalitarian” and said it was acting with disregard for the people it is supposed to serve.

“He does whatever he wants, without any consideration to anything,” Kidwa said of Abbas, whose support among Palestinians has plummeted, according to surveys.

Kidwa returned to Gaza after a year of self-imposed exile in France, and told AFP from the Strip that returning to the West Bank would not be safe.

Gaza, the Arafat family’s ancestral home, has been controlled by the terrorist group Hamas since 2007, bitter rivals of Abbas’s secular Fatah movement that Yasser Arafat co-founded in 1959.

Kidwa was ejected from Fatah last year after trying to form a candidates list to challenge Abbas loyalists in Palestinian legislative polls that had been scheduled for May 2021.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds up a graphic as he addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 23, 2022. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)

Abbas’s decision to cancel those polls, which would have been the first Palestinian elections in 15 years, fueled further charges of authoritarianism.

Gaza was where, in 1994, Yasser Arafat returned to the Palestinian territories after 27 years in exile, following the Oslo peace accords with Israel.

Although he remains a venerated figure among Palestinians, Arafat is seen by many in Israel as an unreformed terrorist who doomed the 2000 Camp David peace talks, orchestrated the suicide bombing onslaught of the Second Intifada that followed, and disseminated a still-prevailing narrative among Palestinians that denies Jews’ history and legitimacy in the Holy Land.

In Gaza, a stream of visitors — local leaders, academics and religious figures — have visited his nephew Kidwa at his modest Gaza City office, where paint chips flaked off the exterior walls.

He claimed there was broad awareness about Abbas’s dictatorial tendencies, including with Fatah.

“It is not a matter of seeing the problems. It is the problem of commanding the necessary courage to stand up and say no, we cannot do it this way,” he said.

Kidwa raised specific alarm about what he said was the collapse of Palestinian institutions. The Palestinian Legislative Council has not met since 2007, the year Hamas seized power in Gaza following bloody street battles with the Palestinian Authority; Israel had dismantled its settlements in the Strip, evicted their residents and withdrawn all troops from the Strip in 2005.

Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction; has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians and orchestrates terror in the West Bank; executes its own citizens in violation of Palestinian and international law; and pours its resources into terror infrastructure, while the Strip’s economy lies in shambles.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses supporters during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Abbas currently leads Fatah, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, effectively giving him full control over Palestinian politics in the West Bank.

“The institutions were destroyed, sometimes, I would say by design,” Kidwa said of PA rule.

“He [Abbas] is ruling by decree, and decrees that are ridiculous,” he said.

Signs of resentment have been growing for months.

Rare anti-Abbas street protests erupted in Ramallah and other cities following the death in Palestinian Authority custody of prominent PA critic Nizar Banat last year.

Last week, gun battles between militants and PA forces raged in central Nablus in the northern West Bank after Palestinian police arrested a prominent Hamas member, with some in the city blasting Abbas over his continuing security cooperation with Israel.

Many believe that Abbas, whose health remains a subject of intense speculation, has already picked his successor.

In May, he issued a decree appointing Hussein Al Sheikh, a powerful insider, as the new PLO secretary general, a move widely seen as an anointment.

Al Sheikh is seen as unpopular, with just two percent of Palestinians naming him as their desired next leader, according to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Kidwa says that any agreement to install Al Sheikh, or anyone else as leader, following an undemocratic deal cooked up by “15-20 guys in a room that’s full of smoke,” would be “refused by the Palestinian people.”

Like many experts, he warned that given Palestinian political divisions and the lack of an obvious successor, the days after Abbas’s death could be “chaotic,” and “maybe violent.”

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