Leaders of the West Bank-based ruling Fatah faction are worried that the mass demonstrations along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel are being used by Hamas to make political gains and bolster the terror group’s popularity among the Palestinian public.
The Fatah leaders are particularly disturbed by the fact that the demonstrations have thus far attracted a relatively large turnout.
They are also unhappy with the massive media coverage that Hamas and its leaders have been getting since the beginning of the demonstrations, which are being held in the context of a six-week campaign called the “March of Return.”
In a bid to show that Fatah is also capable of mobilizing the masses, the faction has launched a series of rallies in the West Bank in support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
However, a rally that was held in the town of Salfit in the Nablus area on Tuesday drew only a small crowd of Fatah loyalists.
The rallies, Fatah says, are being held to voice support for Abbas “in the face of the fierce onslaught to liquidate the Palestinian cause and in response to American and international pressure that he’s facing.”
This is a reference to US President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-announced plan for peace in the Middle East, which the Palestinians have dismissed as a “conspiracy aimed at liquidating the Palestinian cause and national rights.”
Fatah is planning more pro-Abbas rallies in the West Bank in the coming days in an attempt to steal the spotlight and distract attention from the Hamas-backed demonstrations in the Gaza Strip.
Later this week, Fatah is also planning rallies in solidarity with its jailed leader, Marwan Barghouti, and all Palestinian prisoners and detainees held in Israeli prisons.
The purpose of the pro-Abbas rallies is to show that Fatah is also capable of sending Palestinians to the streets and main squares.
In the past few days, Fatah leaders and spokesmen have been making a painstaking effort to drive home the point that the demonstrations in the Gaza Strip are not orchestrated by Hamas, but are part of a nonpolitical popular uprising by the Palestinians living there.
Fatah is also making a big effort to explain to the Palestinian public and the rest of the world that the idea of a nonviolent and popular uprising is its brainchild. Fatah does not like the idea that Hamas is seeking to create the impression that it has come up with a new form of “resistance” against Israel — one that is based on the idea of peaceful and nonviolent protests.
“These great masses that are waging an uprising against the [Israeli] occupation are not acting on the orders of anyone,” said Atef Abu Seif, a Fatah spokesperson. “No one has the right to hijack the will of the people by making it appear as if they are acting on orders from anyone.”
Abu Seif accused Hamas of exploiting the “March of Return” to make political gains. Hamas, he said, is taking advantage of the demonstrations to serve its own interests and causes.
The purpose of the “March of Return is not to score political gains, but to achieve the right of return,” the Fatah spokesman argued, referring to the demand that tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants be permitted to return to their homes in Israel proper — a demand that the PA has made in negotiations with Israel and that, if accepted, would spell the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state.
Referring to Hamas’s attempt to hijack the idea of peaceful protests, Abu Seif said: “We in Fatah had the honor of launching the popular resistance. President Abbas, who had set out the popular resistance as a tool of struggle since his election [in January 2005], was criticized by those who are now making a big deal about the popular resistance.”
Abu Seif said that Fatah was nevertheless happy to see that Palestinians have endorsed Abbas’s strategy of waging nonviolent protests.
“Those who are trying to steer what’s happening on the ground towards serving their own interests are committing a crime against the Palestinian people and their sacrifices,” he added, referring to Hamas’s attempt to hijack and control the “March of Return.” The leaders of Hamas, he said, are trying to turn the protests into their group’s battle. “The truth is that this is a peaceful popular resistance led by our people as part of the popular resistance process that was originally initiated by Fatah,” Abu Seif said.
The demonstrations have been far from peaceful, however. The Israeli army says protesters have burned tires and thrown bombs, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at Israeli soldiers. Several attempts were made to breach the border fence. Soldiers have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live fire. Palestinians say 30 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during the border clashes.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank on Tuesday scoffed at Hamas’s use of photos and quotes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela as part of the “March of Return” propaganda campaign.
On Monday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh delivered a speech in front of a billboard with pictures of the pacifist icons, with quotes from them on marching to freedom.
Yusef Al Mahmoud, spokesman for the PA government in Ramallah, said that Hamas’s use of the pictures and quotes of the three icons was intended to cover up its crimes.
He said that Hamas was continuing to sabotage efforts to achieve “national reconciliation” and was continuing to issue “hostile statements” against Fatah and the PA government.
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said in an article published by the Palestinian website Al Watan Voice that if Gandhi, King and Nelson were alive, they would have been “astonished” by Haniyeh’s speech.
Erekat was referring to Haniyeh’s talk about the “peacefulness” of the demonstrations and criticism of the PA leadership’s threats to impose new sanctions on the Gaza Strip.
“Were Gandhi, King and Mandela to return from the grave, they would have asked Haniyeh: Don’t you know that we devoted our lives and struggle to unify our people, and not to divide them for factional reasons?”