The Palestinian elections – according to an IDF expert
Apr 9, 2021 | Yoav Limor
In November 2020, many months after cutting off all ties with Israel, with the prospect of Israeli sovereignty being declared in parts of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] taken off the table, the Palestinian Authority agreed to renew security and defence cooperation. The formal announcement came after lengthy behind-the-scenes discussions. The person behind those discussions, even while ties were severed between Jerusalem and Ramallah, was the head of Coordination for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Major General Kamil Abu Rukun.
Abu Rukun is slated to finish a stormy three-year term as head of COGAT in April. For 42 years he has been following every twist and turn of Palestinian politics, and it’s doubtful that anyone else in Israel is as familiar with the situation as he is.
“I’ve been here since the attempt to transition to a civil administration following the Camp David accords, the attempt to find an alternative to the PLO through village organisations, and after that, the First Intifada, the peace agreements, the Second Intifada, and everything after that. But the last few years have been more complicated and problematic than anything I remember from the past,” Abu Rukun says.
Yoav Limor: Why?
Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun: “Because matters have become more complicated. The separation between the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria; the PA cutting off ties with Israel and the US, and of course, COVID. All these only increased the distress and problems that already existed there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic piggybacked on the constant crisis in the Gaza Strip. Currently, there is 45% unemployment in Gaza, but the situation has improved by some measures. Electricity is available for an average of 12 hours a day, 16 in some areas – a dramatic improvement from when Gaza averaged only four hours of electricity per day. Abu Rukun was a key partner in the process that led to this development. He put together an agreement that stipulated that US$8 million of the aid money provided by the Government of Qatar to Gaza each month would go directly to pay Israeli energy companies that supply diesel fuel to run Gaza’s power plant.
YL: What is the COVID situation in Gaza like?
KAR: “To everyone’s surprise, the situation there is fantastic. There are almost no fatalities, and there is very little spread.”
Abu Rukun explains that this is the case because the authorities in Gaza enforced regulations stringently. The Rafah border crossing, which was closed for months, recently reopened, but anyone who came through was required to quarantine.
KAR: “Gaza isn’t Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. In Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians behave like people do in Israel – they walk around, come and go, have parties. In Gaza, there is strict discipline, so they have a very low COVID rate.”
An uprising in Gaza? No chance
In recent weeks, Gaza held another round of Hamas party elections which resulted in Yahya Sinwar beating Nizar Awadallah in a close race.
KAR: “The old guard united against the existing system and put up a fight. I’m just reminding you that Awadallah was behind the Gilad Shalit incident [the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006],” Abu Rukun says.
YL: Which of them would have been better for Israel?
KAR: “Neither. They’re a terrorist organisation, and that’s how they should be treated. It’s imprinted on their brains.”
Abu Rukun thinks there is no chance that the people of Gaza will rise up and revolt in an Arab Spring-like movement:
KAR: “A year and a half ago, there was an attempt to challenge them [Hamas], and Hamas really gave it to them. Hamas is very powerful, and people don’t dare stick their necks out. I don’t think it will happen.”
For now, the main challenge he foresees is the Palestinian Authority (PA) elections.
KAR: “Hamas really wants these elections, so they’re going along with things that they could have insisted on having their own way, like legal oversight, because their goal is to get into Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. They’ll cooperate with anything that can lead them there.”
Abu Rukun says the current expectation is that Hamas will win some 40% of the vote, with 60% going to Fatah. He notes that the results of the 2006 election, which Hamas won, defied expectations and thinks that “there could be a surprise this time, too.”
Such a surprise, he explains, would not occur because of popular support for Hamas, but because of the alienation the Palestinian public feels from the PA, and because of internal rifts in Fatah and Hamas’ well-oiled party machine.
KAR: “They [Hamas] don’t have a majority among the population, but they are very well-organised and they have a goal,” he says.
YL: And Abbas doesn’t understand that?
KAR: “Abbas is 86, and he doesn’t want to be remembered as the one who split the Palestinians and lost the Gaza Strip. He is busy with his legacy. He also wants to keep all the factions in the Palestinian political system, and apparently curry favour with the new US Administration, which supports democratic processes. Other than that, he’s a little detached. It reminds me of what happened to [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak before the Arab Spring.”
YL: But the population in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] wants to live in freedom, not under a radical Islamist regime like in Gaza.
KAR: “That’s true, but most people are busy with their day-to-day lives. I assume that most of them don’t really believe that Hamas would take over. They’re busy with themselves.”
YL: If Hamas wins the elections, what should Israel do?
“We’re preparing for every scenario, including the possibility of a rise in terrorism. I remind you that even when the PA cut ties with us last year, we continued to function and provided solutions.”
Abu Rukun says that Israel is not intervening in the internal Palestinian matter, but he does not envision a situation in which Israel would continue to abide by agreements made with the PA if it were under the leadership of Hamas.
KAR: “If that happens, automatically there would be no … security coordination, so we would have to ask ourselves what the agreements were still worth.”
YL: Who do you expect will succeed Abbas as PA leader?
KAR: “I am betting on Nasser al-Kidwa [Yasser Arafat’s nephew, who represented the Palestinians in the UN and was the PA’s former foreign minister].”
‘The Palestinians are like us’
Abu Rukun, 62, is a member of Israel’s Druze minority and lives in Ussafiya in northern Israel. He has three children and three grandchildren (“one of them named Kamil, after me.”) April will be the third time he leaves the IDF, and he hasn’t yet decided what he will do next.
He enjoys very good relations with the top PA brass.
KAR: “When Naftali Bennett was defence minister, he told me they loved me. I said that was right, and that I used it for the sake of Israel’s security interests.”
He tells his staff that their job is to prevent a humanitarian crisis among the Palestinians, “Because it would reach us.”
According to Abu Rukun, the Palestinians – after an initial angry response – accepted the Abraham Accords and are now expecting the normalisation deals to result in increased aid. But anyone who thinks that the Palestinians will demonstrate flexibility and become willing to make political concessions, he says, is wrong.
KAR: “Unfortunately, they are losing time. Soon it won’t be possible to do anything,” he says.
YL: Is it solvable? Is there willingness?
KAR: “Where, with us or with them?”
YL: You handle them.
KAR: “Yes. I think that they really want to make progress.”
YL: Their actions don’t indicate that. Look at how they went to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
KAR: “They did that because of the impasse, and because they wanted to shake up the system and exert some influence. I have no doubt that our military is the most moral in the world, and if The Hague has any questions about it, they should look into what [Syrian President Bashar] Assad did or what they’re doing in Iran, and then get back to us.”
YL: What does the average Israeli reading this interview not know about the Palestinians?
KAR: “They are an educated people similar to us. It’s not Jordan or Egypt. We live close to one another, work with each other. The Palestinians aren’t the devil. Most of them are good people, who just want to live. The young generation wants to be left alone. They want rights. They want to live like any other young people in the west. They want economic security.”
YL: You’re basically saying that what the Abraham Accords didn’t do, economics will.
KAR: “If I were a Palestinian, I probably wouldn’t say that because they have national aspirations, but the economy is definitely the major thing. In 2030, three million people will be living in the Gaza Strip. We need to think two steps ahead. The economy leads to stable security, and our job is to give the political echelon the flexibility and the freedom to work. I think that there is an opportunity right now to move toward bigger things with the Palestinians.”