Abbas is freezing over postponed elections and the Israel-Hamas ceasefire

  • Abbas postpones elections to survive politically and receives a backlash
  • Israel-Hamas ceasefire sidelines the Palestinian Authority 
  • Hamas is gaining legitimacy over the Palestinian cause

Why is Abbas’s Heat Level Freezing? 

Answer: He is losing Palestinian support in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

On May 21st ceasefire came into force between Hamas and Israel, putting an end to eleven days of conflict. The fighting was arguably the fiercest since 2014 and was the result of a sequence of events that weakened Abbas politically. 

At the start of Ramadan (April 13th), Israeli forces clashed with Palestinians over evening gatherings at Damascus Gate, a traditional celebration point during Ramadan. The clashes lasted until April 25th, when Israeli police removed the barricades put up to prevent worshipers from gathering outside the gate, according to the Palestinians. On April 29th, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the postponement of the long-awaited elections, stating Israel was to blame for the delay. According to his allegations, Netanyahu would prohibit the process from taking place in Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, the postponement enraged not only Palestinians but also factions within his party. In May, the evictions in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and the clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque sparked a new round of violence. All these events may seem separate but are interlinked. They opened a window of opportunity for Hamas to act “in solidarity” with the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, while the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) silence was deafening. 

Abbas is freezing because the dynamics of political influence changed during and after the conflict. Abbas has to deal with two fronts at once: Hamas’s popularity rising among Palestinians and abroad and divisions inside his party Fatah. 

What is changing Abbas’s heat level? 

Answer: The elections’ postponement and the recent tension between Israel and Hamas.

Internally, Abbas has to deal with the divisions of his own party. Soon after he announced elections on January 15th, popular figures from within his party declared they would contest the polls with their own lists. Hence, as one could expect, at the announcement of the delayed elections, intense domestic criticism arose among Palestinians and within his own party. Abbas’s popularity has plummeted among Palestinians.

The absence of elections for 15 years and Abbas’s prolonged term in power have led to political fatigue. The allegations of corruption and authoritarianism have further waned public support. The sequence of events in April and the escalation in May enabled Hamas to position itself as the sole protector of Palestinian interests. One could wonder why now? What was different this time? This time, Hamas was able to criticize the indefinite postponement of the elections and describe it as a “coup”. It was able to directly attack Abbas and sideline him and the PA as a whole. Hamas attacked the PA not about the control of the Gaza Strip, but about the Palestinian cause. 

When it first launched rockets, Hamas issued a list of demands in order to consider a ceasefire. These demands focused on the recent violence in Jerusalem. Hamas positioned itself as the defender of Palestinians not only in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip but also (and maybe more evidently than ever before) in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel was asked to cease the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, to evacuate its forces from Al-Aqsa Mosque, and to allow for the Palestinian elections. 

As the events unfolded, the PA was mostly silent and absent. The PLO failed to respond to the tension and was merely an observer. Moreover, Arab and Turkish representatives rushed to Gaza to broker a peace agreement between Hamas and Israel, while Abbas was marginalized. Eventually, it was Hamas who hailed the “defence of Jerusalem”.

Ironically, the PA used this very same narrative right after the ceasefire was set in place. As the Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs asserted in an interview with Al Jazeera: “It is time to remember that this is the origin of everything, it is very important to make the focus on Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where everything starts and where everything ends.” Well, Hamas did already make Jerusalem the focus and won the support of Palestinians. 

What is driving Abbas? 

Answer: Political survival drives Abbas to announce and then renounce the elections. Yet, the backlash is immense.

Abbas announced the first elections in 15 years as a response to criticisms of the legitimacy of his presidency. He took the risk of taking Palestinians to the polls in a period when his status was freezing because he hoped for domestic and international gains. His goal was to calm the critics on the one hand, and possibly rebuild PA’s relationships with the new US administration on the other. After years of the Trump administration undermining the Palestinian struggle and exacerbating tensions (e.g., moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem), Abbas aimed to end his period of political marginalization.

Nevertheless, it soon became foreseeable that Abbas would be the loser of the electoral battle. With Fatah divided and the electorate demanding a change in the long-standing PA, the outcome of the elections would empower (and possibly legitimise the political wing of) Hamas. Hence, Abbas stepped back and renounced the elections in order to survive politically. However, this decision challenged his authority once more. He paved the way for Hamas to rise as the representative of Palestinian interests. After the ceasefire was brokered between Hamas and Israel, Abbas became more isolated and politically weak than ever before. 

Overall, although Abbas tried to prevent a political suicide in a lost electoral battle, the chain of events—starting from the postponement of the elections, the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, the Al-Aqsa mosque clashes and the Hamas-Israel conflict—left him in the same or arguably worse political position.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Further tensions will arise as Hamas is going to try to capitalise on its gains.

With Hamas gaining leverage, democratic elections postponed and a freezing Abbas, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could plunge into chaos. Hamas aspires to lead Palestinians not only in the Gaza Strip but also in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Thus, Hamas will try to capitalise on the latest change in power balance. It will probably advocate for elections and stress the narrative of the ‘sole protector’ of the Palestinian interests. Given that the Palestinian Authority does not represent the Palestinian population, how would the Palestinian-Israeli relations look like with Hamas in Palestinian leadership?

Hamas does not recognize the state of Israel. According to Hamas’s ‘General Principles and Policies’ document of 2017 “The establishment of “Israel” is entirely illegal […]”. It is apparent that this a turning point for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Interestingly, Abbas, the Biden Administration and the potential new Bennett-led Israeli coalition government have a common goal: avoid seeing Hamas at the Palestinian leadership.