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Israel and the West have often asked: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? The divided regimes between Gaza and the West Bank continues to make it difficult to imagine the future Palestinian leader. Still, these three names are worth considering.
Updated Dec. 5, 2023 at 12:05 a.m.
Israel has set two goals for its Gaza war: destroying Hamas and releasing hostages.
But it has no answer to, nor is even asking the question: What comes next?
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the return of the current Palestinian Authority to govern post-war Gaza. That stance seems opposed to the U.S. Administration’s call to revitalize the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume power in the coastal enclave.
But neither Israel nor the U.S. put a detailed plan for a governing body in post-war Gaza, let alone offering a vision for a bonafide Palestinian state that would also encompass the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers much of the occupied West Bank, was created in1994 as part of the Oslo Accords peace agreement. It’s now led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2005. Over the past few years, the question of who would succeed Abbas, now 88 years old, has largely dominated internal Palestinian politics.
But that question has gained new urgency — and was fundamentally altered — with the war in Gaza.
Hamas' history of rule
Hamas has ruled Gaza since its coup in 2007. For the past decade, regional efforts have failed to end the Palestinian division and establish a unified authority in Gaza and the West Bank.
Despite the lip service given by Washington, it’s hard to see a future with a largely unpopular 88-year-old leader in Abbas. Any current negotiations about what happens at the end of the war in Gaza — including the establishment of a Palestinian state — will have to come with some prospective toward the future. And that must include a leader with both vitality and popular legitimacy, as well as someone who can speak to external players, including Israel.
Analysts argued that it would be difficult to exclude Hamas from any future Palestinian government, given the group’s growing power and popularity among Palestinians.
Renowned Israeli writer Zvi Bar'el wrote in Haaretz on Nov. 17 that any future Palestinian leader, including imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, “can't ignore” the status the current war has given to Hamas.
Still, after the attack of Oct. 7, it’s virtually impossible to imagine any of the prominent Hamas leaders (either those inside Gaza or in exile in Qatar) being considered to lead a future Palestinian state. Moreover, the eventual negotiations to bring an end to the current conflict and envision any lasting peace are likely to have a major impact on what names emerge for the leadership role.
For the moment, here are three notable figures seen as potentially viable future Palestinian leaders.
May 8, 2023, Ramallah: Palestinians attend a ceremony marking the 21st anniversary of the arrest jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.
Currently in an Israeli prison, Marwan Barghouti has long been seen as a frontrunner to succeed the aging Abbas as the PA’s president. He was expected to run a prison-cell candidacy in the July 2021 presidential elections. But the vote never happened.
He was a charismatic young leader as a university student.
Barghouti was a charismatic young leader of the Fatah Movement in the 1980s when he was a university student, and now occupies a seat in its central committee, the groups’ highest decision-making body.
Israeli authorities arrested Barghouti in 2002, and a military court handed him five life sentences over allegations of orchestrating attacks against Israel. Israel has also accused him of establishing the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah’s military arm.
He helped craft the so-called Prisoner’s Document, signed in 2006 by inmates affiliated with all Palestinian groups including Hamas, calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, for Palestinian resistance to be limited to territories occupied in the 1967 war.
Dubbed as “the Palestinian Mandela,” Barghouti was born in the village of Kobar in the occupied West Bank in 1962. He played a central role in the protests that grew to the First Intifada, or uprising, in the 1980s. That led to his deportation by Israel to Jordan in May 1987.
He returned to the West Bank in 1993, as part of the Oslo Accords, the most serious peace initiative between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but ultimately was seen as a threat and arrested.
His wife Fadwa Barghouti has long campaigned for his release, meeting regularly with regional and international officials. In August, she launched another international campaign under the banner of “Freedom for Marwan Barghouti, the Mandela of Palestine.”
April 4, 2023: Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hussein Al-Sheikh, meets with the Palestinian police in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Hussein Alsheikh Office/ZUMA
Hussein al-Sheikh is the main go-between for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate civilian matters in the occupied West Bank, in his capacity as chairman of the PA’s General Authority of Civil Affairs.
He was lauded as a pragmatic figure who has been able to compromise.
A member of Fatah’s central committee, al-Sheikh was born in 1960 in Ramallah, and spent 11 years behind bars in Israel between 1978 and 1989. During his time in the prison, he became fluent in Hebrew.
He was appointed a member of the National Leadership of the Uprising during the first Intifada, before he was promoted to become Fatah’s secretary general in the West Bank in 1999.
He served multiple times in the government in the past two decades. Following the Israel-Hamas war in 2014, he became the Palestinian representative of a three-member Gaza reconstruction committee that also included representatives from Egypt and Israel.
For years, he was lauded by Israeli and Western officials as a pragmatic figure who has been able to compromise and find a common ground.
In recent weeks, al-Sheikh has regularly met with Western officials to discuss the current Israel-Gaza war, including a high-level meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Arab top diplomats in the Jordanian capital last month.
27 October 2010, Marrakesh: Mohammed Dahlan, Member of the Central Committee of Fatah, Central Committee of Fatah, at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa.
World Economic Forum/Flickr
Another name floated to lead a revitalized Palestinian Authority is Mohammad Dahlan.
An influential but polarizing Palestinian figure, Dahlan is a former head of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security in Gaza and a senior member of Fatah opposed to President Abbas.
He was born in 1961 in a refugee camp in Gaza’s southern city of Khan Younis
He was a member of the group’s Central Committee until tensions with Abbas exploded and he was expelled from the group in 2011. Since then, he has lived in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
He serves as an adviser for the UAE’s President Mohammad Bin Zayed, and is widely known for having close ties with Israeli, American, and regional intelligence agencies.
Dahlan was born in 1961 in a refugee camp in Gaza’s southern city of Khan Younis. He was one of the founders of the youth arm of the Fatah movement in Gaza, which was then under the Israeli occupation.
Israel deported him to Jordan in 1987. He then headed to Tunisia along with late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and other leaders.
He returned to the Palestinian territories in 1994 as part of the Oslo Accords and was appointed chief of preventive security in Gaza.
He led a security campaign to suppress opposition to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which had faced stiff resistance following the Oslo Accords. Abbas and other Fatah leaders blamed Dahlan for losing Gaza for the group’s rival Hamas in 2007 after deadly clashes in the coastal enclave.
As tensions between the two men mounted, Abbas stripped Dahlan of his parliamentary immunity in 2016, leading to his conviction of embezzlement by a Palestinian court that sentenced him to three years in prison, and prompted him to flee in exile.
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