Abbas pledges reform as embattled PLO holds rare meeting

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas shown on May 25, 2021 at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas shown on May 25, 2021 at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas pledged commitment to reform on Sunday as the embattled Palestine Liberation Organization, where he serves as chairman, held a rare meeting to name new key leaders.

The PLO, tasked since its creation in 1964 with steering the struggle against Israel for Palestinian statehood, has faced growing questions over its relevance in recent years and criticism for failing to hold regular elections to fill leadership roles.

«We pay great attention to the reform process, which is a continuous process, and we are ready to do what is necessary to make it successful,» Abbas said.

Sunday’s meeting of the PLO’s 124-member Central Committee — the first in four years — was expected to fill several executive committee vacancies, including that held by ex-chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who died in 2020 after contracting the coronavirus.

Highlighting Palestinian frustration with the PLO and Abbas, Sunday’s meeting was boycotted by several leftist factions, and protests demanding his resignation were held in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza, ruled by Hamas Islamists.

Palestinians protest in Gaza City against the meeting with banners that read in Arabic "the council does not represent me" and "no legitimacy to Mahmud Abbas and his corrupted partners"

Palestinians protest in Gaza City against the meeting with banners that read in Arabic «the council does not represent me» and «no legitimacy to Mahmud Abbas and his corrupted partners»

Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told AFP that «the very significant questions about the legitimacy» of the PLO have been fuelled by «the lack of elections».

Abbas has been accused of maintaining a tight grip over the PLO, an umbrella group representing various Palestinian factions, and the Palestinian Authority, which has civilian control over parts of the West Bank.

Khatib said the fact that Sunday’s decisions would be made only by Abbas’s inner circle «will further deepen the debate and the question over legitimacy».

— Favoured choice?-

Palestinians have not been to the ballot box for 16 years, and their aspirations for a two-state solution are strongly rejected by Israel’s right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Violence flares almost daily in the West Bank, while Abbas has seen his support dive to historic lows in opinion polls, accused of autocracy in rare street protests last year.

The Palestinian Authority's civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh, on the left, pictured on May 24, 2021 with the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry

The Palestinian Authority’s civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh, on the left, pictured on May 24, 2021 with the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry

Widely tipped to take over Erekat’s chief negotiator role when results are announced is Hussein al-Sheikh, the current Palestinian civil affairs minister who is charged with dealing with Israel.

Analysts have speculated that Sheikh could be Abbas’s preferred choice as a presidential successor, with the vote offering a chance to elevate his profile.

The meeting was also due to fill the executive committee slot vacated by Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned in 2020 saying Palestinian politics needed «renewal and reinvigoration».

Hamas is not part of the PLO, a source of friction with Abbas’s secular Fatah movement that has in part hindered unified Palestinian governance.

At the Gaza protest against the Ramallah meeting, Hamas official Mashir al-Masry told AFP the PLO’s central committee had «no legitimacy» and was out of touch with «the will of the Palestinian people».

He re-affirmed Hamas’s demand for Abbas to call elections across the Palestinian territories.

Abbas has said he scrapped the elections that had been scheduled for last year because Israel refused to allow voting in annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.

But analysts said Abbas likely balked when polls showed Fatah would be trounced by Hamas.

Abbas again on Sunday said he was committed to elections «as soon as we are able to hold them in Jerusalem».

Israel bans Palestinian political activity in the city, which it regards as its «undivided capital».

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