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Palestinian Authority in Crisis

May 25, 2023 | AIJAC staff

Palestinian demonstrators demand the resignation of PA President Mahmoud Abbas - the PA is increasingly viewed by many Palestinians as no longer representing their interests (Photo: Shutterstock, Anas-Mohammed)
Palestinian demonstrators demand the resignation of PA President Mahmoud Abbas - the PA is increasingly viewed by many Palestinians as no longer representing their interests (Photo: Shutterstock, Anas-Mohammed)

Update 05/23 #3

 

This Update features two pieces on the growing crisis in the Palestinian Authority (PA) – a body that has lost control over sections of the West Bank, is highly unpopular among Palestinians, and faces a looming struggle over who will succeed 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas. The Update also features comment on a particularly extreme and hateful speech by Abbas at the UN last week.

We lead with Israeli strategic analyst Lieut. Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Bartal, who warns that the PA, established in 1994, may now be on its last legs. He notes that the PA is probably the greatest achievement of the Palestinian national movement, but it is unpopular and losing control of parts of the West Bank after having completely lost control of Gaza. He warns that Hamas has a game plan to destabilise the West Bank and take control of the PA’s current power centres, and if it is allowed to do so, the security implications for Israel would be huge. For Bartal’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up is former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari discussing the severe crisis likely to afflict the Palestinian Authority when Abbas passes from the scene. He explains how the PA has not only long been a cesspool of corruption, nepotism, and ineffective governance, but also how Abbas’ increasingly authoritarian rule and intolerance of any rivals means a peaceful and undisputed transition of power looks all but impossible. Al-Omari urges donors to the PA like the EU and US to demand Abbas create a credible succession process right now, and warns that PA collapse and regional destabilisation are likely outcomes if this is not done. For this Palestinian insider’s perspective, CLICK HERE.

Finally, this Update contains a Jerusalem Post editorial on Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the UN’s “Nakba Day” commemoration on May 15. The paper goes through the litany of extremist and hateful things Abbas said at that controversial UN event – the paper describes both the speech and the event itself as a “double travesty”. Looking at the totality of Abbas’ claims, the paper concludes that Abbas is simply not a partner for peace with Israel, and is not interested in a negotiated two-state peace deal. For the paper’s full explanation of why not, CLICK HERE.

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Are We Witnessing the End of the Palestinian Authority?

By Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Bartal

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 2,198
May 23, 2023


The 87-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presides over a body which is losing control over major parts of the West Bank and which most Palestinians would like to see collapse, according to recent polls. (Photo: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo).  

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In the past year, we have seen a crumbling of the Palestinian Authority’s level of control over the West Bank. The PA is seen by many Palestinians as a corrupt organization that no longer represents their interests. Recent events in Nablus and Jenin suggest the possibility of a change in the status quo and an end to the PA-Israel order.  

The month of April was marked by Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, a time during which Palestinian unity is often put on display, or at least the semblance of such unity. Hamas and Fatah flags were hung on the Temple Mount, and both organizations declared their desire for national unity. However, beneath the surface, the situation was far less amicable. Although Fatah is trying to reach a fifth unity agreement with Hamas (after the agreements of 2006, 2011, 2014, and 2017), Hamas does not appear interested.

Meanwhile, a survey published on March 23 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) reflects alarming data that point to a trend for which Israel must be prepared. For the first time, a clear majority of the Palestinian public (52%) believe the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be in the Palestinian interest. A 57% majority thinks the continued existence of the PA, meaning the preservation of the status quo, is in Israel’s interest and that the fall of the PA would serve the Palestinian interest and that of the armed groups, particularly Hamas.

One of Fatah’s greatest achievements was the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, which was meant to be a Palestinian governmental expression of self-determination. It is a kind of state that was to have been the basis for a future Palestinian government to include the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. The vision of a two-state solution has eroded in recent years, and the Palestinians today believe its realization would be more similar to Donald Trump’s 2016 peace plan than Bill Clinton’s Camp David plan of 2000.

Palestinian society is now divided between two separate governing authorities. The Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas, which is apparently independent and which is seen as an agent of deterrence towards Israel. The second is the PA, which is controlled by Fatah (in parts of the West Bank). The PA is viewed as an entity that cooperates with Israel in order to preserve its rule and material benefits.

Activity on Palestinian social networks over the years reveals that Hamas is more popular than any other Palestinian organization. In almost every election poll conducted from 2014 until today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya has won the majority of voters over Mahmoud Abbas. (In the most recent poll, Haniya won 52% to Abbas’s 36%.) Fatah and Hamas are almost equal in strength, though Fatah has a slight advantage. But when asked, “Who do you think best represents the Palestinian interest?”, 26% of respondents say Hamas and 24% say Fatah.

Most strikingly, 44% believe neither party best represents the Palestinian interest. The largest party in Palestinian politics is an assortment of new local organizations such as the Lion’s Den and local battalions in Nablus, Jenin, and elsewhere in the West Bank. These local organizations do not see themselves as committed to a specific organization. What unites them is the war against Israel.

The PA is seen in the eyes of a large part of the Palestinian public as a corrupt governmental authority that colludes with Israel. The way to gain legitimacy among the public is through struggle and resistance. A whopping 58% of the public support a return to an armed intifada. Another 50% believe the current right-wing Israeli government is going to fall over the demonstrations opposing judicial reform.

There is a clear connection between the demonstrations and the undermining of the security of Israelis on the West Bank. The massive pressure of terrorist attacks together with disorder within Israel (notwithstanding the virtue or otherwise of the government’s moves regarding legal reform) create an impression that Israel is disintegrating. The phrases “Israel is falling” or “Israel is collapsing” are gaining momentum on social networks. That being the case, it is little wonder that support for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is at an unprecedented low, with 74% of the Palestinian public believing the two-state solution is no longer a relevant option.

What is relevant? Violent resistance. Hamas is increasing its pressure on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. The terrorists who murdered Rebbetzin Lucy Dee and her two daughters were a Hamas squad from Nablus. Hassam Badran, a Hamas spokesperson and a member of Hamas’s political bureau, made clear that the policy of Hamas is to set fire to the West Bank. The attack in which the three women were murdered was described as a heroic strike “which completely removed the embarrassment from the [Islamic] nation in revenge for what was done to Murabitat al-Aqsa who were dragged by the occupation during their break into the blessed mosque in the month of Ramadan.”

The Murabitat is an illegal organization of women who support Hamas and its operations on the Temple Mount against Jewish visits. Images of these women being denied entry to the Temple Mount or hurling insults and curses at passing Jews or police officers are common on Palestinian social networks. On April 10, 2023, Raida Said Jolani, one of the women of the group, was prosecuted after she expressed support for Hamas and terrorist activities against Israel. The Murabitat is in fact an arm of the Hamas organization operating in Jerusalem.


Israeli police on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: One of Hamas’ key strategies for fomenting West Bank violence and destablising the PA is to use its affiliates in Jerusalem to create Temple Mount clashes and then pose as a defender of the al-Aqsa Mosque (Photo: Shutterstock, Robert Hoetink)

The terrorists recently killed in Nablus join terrorist Abdel Fattah Harusha, the murderer of brothers Hillel and Yigal Yaniv. Harusha was a Hamas operative who returned to Jenin after the attack, used the organization’s infrastructure to hide, and was killed by IDF forces on March 7.

These were not isolated attacks. Rather, they reflect Hamas’s conscious intention to field operatives in the West Bank and conduct as many attacks as possible.

The reality in the West Bank is that the PA, widely viewed as corrupt, is losing its power. Abu Mazen is seen as an illegitimate ruler in light of his repeated postponements of presidential and legislative elections. This is on top of stagnation in the peace process and the continuation of the existing status quo between the PA and Israel.

Hamas, meanwhile, strives to show that although it maintains relative calm in the Gaza Strip, it has not abandoned the path of resistance and continues to initiate terrorist acts against Israeli citizens and settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. The terrorists who were killed in Tulkarem on May 6 were a Hamas squad, according to its publications, that carried out shooting attacks on Jewish settlements in the area and attacked several vehicles.

At this stage, it appears that Hamas’s game plan is to destabilize the West Bank through increased violence, increase its popularity in that area in the process, and subsequently take control of the PA’s power centers. The continuation of this explosive situation may well lead to the disintegration of the PA and a different government situation that Israel will have to deal with on the West Bank.

Dr. Lieut. Col. (res.) Shaul Bartal is a senior researcher at the BESA Center and a research fellow at the Instituto do Oriente at the University of Lisbon. During his military service he held various posts in the West Bank. He has taught in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University.


The Palestinian Succession Crisis

 

A Contest to Succeed President Abbas Could Destabilize the Region

By Ghaith al-Omari

Foreign Affairs, May 16, 2023


Fatah demonstration in 2020:  Abbas has prevented anyone else from building an independent power base in Fatah,  expelling or marginalising those who could become a rival. The result is a dangerous succession struggle will likely follow his death or retirement (Photo: Shutterstock, Anas-Mohammed)

 

In 2005, Mahmoud Abbas was elected to a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority, filling the vacancy left by the death of Yasir Arafat. Since then, there have been no elections; 18 years later, Abbas is still in office.

The PA was established by a 1994 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although legally subordinate to the PLO, with powers limited to the West Bank and Gaza, the PA swiftly became the center of gravity in the Palestinian political system. The authority’s structure was modeled on the governments of Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, with a theoretical separation of powers between the legislature (the Palestinian Legislative Council), the judiciary, and the executive. In reality, the presidency dominates the other two branches of government. The courts are submissive, and Abbas controls the legislature, and has the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. He is also in charge of the security services, and as Arafat did before him, Abbas serves simultaneously as president of the authority, chairman of the PLO and head of the Fatah party, controlling its votes in the legislature. Although the authority’s popularity is waning, it is still the governing body of the West Bank, the international voice for Palestinians, and the bastion of secular national Palestinian politics. Abbas’s various roles have made him the focal point of Palestinian power.

The PA’s main competitor has long been Hamas, which was established in 1987. Hamas is an Islamist organization that is fiercely anti-Israeli, regarding any peace with the occupier as illegitimate. It uses violence as a tool to achieve its objectives and is regarded as a terrorist organization by many Arab and Western countries, including the United States.

The authority is highly unpopular, and Abbas is now 87. Mutterings about succession have grown louder with each passing year. When the time comes for the selection of a new president, it is unlikely to be a smooth transition; Abbas has maintained his grip on power by ensuring that he has no obvious successor and by refusing to create a process for selecting one. This means that in the event of his death or sudden decision to step down, a protracted and violent struggle is likely to result. Such a conflict could decide not only who governs the PA and whether it survives as a governing body but also the future of the Palestinian national movement.

COLLAPSING AUTHORITY

The Palestinian Authority was intended to be an interim step toward the founding of a sovereign Palestinian state, which the United States hoped would follow from a diplomatic deal to end the Israeli occupation. But this deal never came, and as the peace process began to falter in the late 1990s, the PA became practically permanent. It quickly grew into a bloated, unresponsive institution that seemed more interested in providing patronage to its cronies than in governing. Within a few years of its establishment, many Palestinians associated the authority with corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency.


A poster showing Abbas with his late predecessor Yasser Arafat: The PA’s corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency began under Arafat, but these trends accelerated after Abbas took over in 2005 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Although these trends began well before the 2005 election, they accelerated under Abbas’s leadership. His failure to negotiate an end to the Israeli occupation was particularly damaging to the PA’s standing. By 2010, the Palestinian public had lost faith in diplomacy. In 2011, Abbas—who favors negotiations and generally opposes violence—sought an alternative path to a settlement with Israel by applying to join the United Nations. This effort backfired when the bid failed. The Palestinians did succeed in joining some UN agencies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, UNESCO, and the International Criminal Court. But this made little tangible difference in Palestinians’ lives. In the meantime, the rightward shift in Israeli politics worsened relations and rendered any form of PA cooperation with Israel, particularly in the realm of security, highly unpopular. Today, the authority still espouses diplomacy and calls for negotiations. But according to a poll conducted in March by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, only 18 percent of Palestinians believe that negotiations are the the best route to ending the occupation, and 69 percent doubt that international organizations will be able to soften Israeli policies.

The authority has also struggled domestically. In 2006, in a bid to bolster his legitimacy, Abbas called Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Hamas ran a campaign focused on the PA’s corruption and won 74 seats; Abbas’s Fatah won just 45. Attempts to negotiate a power-sharing agreement proved unsuccessful, and violence broke out. Armed partisans clashed, culminating in a showdown in the Gaza Strip in 2007 in which hundreds were killed and wounded. Hamas won, drove the authority out and took over the territory. Israel responded by imposing a blockade on Gaza, leaving Palestinians geographically and politically divided, with the PA continuing to rule in the West Bank.

These events rocked the authority, and in an attempt to rehabilitate its standing, Abbas appointed a reformist prime minster, Salam Fayyad. Fayyad’s tenure was short. He was ousted in 2013, brought down by fierce opposition from Fatah leaders to his anticorruption measures. Since then, Fayyad’s reforms to reduce corruption and increase financial transparency and public-sector efficiency have been rolled back. Today, around 80 percent of Palestinians believe that the PA is corrupt, and an opinion survey conducted by the pollster Khalil Shikaki in April showed that for the first time, a majority of Palestinians believe that the collapse of the authority would be in their best interests.

UNEASY LIES THE HEAD

Popular dissatisfaction with the authority intensified after it began to take an increasingly authoritarian turn. The PA, like the Arab governments it modeled itself on, was never democratic. Yet starting with attempts to deny Hamas the ability to govern after its 2007 parliamentary victory, Abbas abandoned all remaining checks and balances in favor of concentrating power in his hands. He brought the judiciary under his control, culminating in a 2016 presidential decree that created the Palestinian Constitutional Court, which was designed to give a veneer of legality to his decisions. Abbas packed the court with loyalists, and it began to rule in his favor, approving his decision to postpone national and municipal elections. Two years later, the court dissolved the legislative council.

Although these institutions were never truly independent, Abbas’s power grab was nonetheless significant. His predecessor was by no means a democrat. But Arafat had a consensus-building approach to politics, permitting criticism, largely preferring cooperation to confrontation, and encouraging a measure of vibrancy within Fatah that attracted young, energetic political talent. As a result, when Arafat died, the transition was smooth. Abbas, in contrast, regards any expression of disagreement as a challenge and is fearful of attracting talent into the party lest it question his policies and decisions.

Although this approach has brought Fatah firmly under his control, the party’s base has narrowed and its appeal to young politically minded Palestinians has diminished. Abbas has dealt swiftly with party figures who have attempted to build a political base or who have become too popular. In 2016, for example, he used Fatah’s General Conference to marginalize the popular party officials Marwan Barghouthi and Muhammad Dahlan. Others have been expelled for defying his orders. The marginalizations and expulsions have left the party short on talent, featuring many aspirants to the throne but none who poses a serious challenge.


The two succession contenders closest to Abbas are Hussein al-Sheikh, the Secretary-General of the PLO (left), and Majed Faraj, security chief of the PA (right) – but neither have any real independent party base. (Photos: US Department of State, Youtube Screenshot)

Nevertheless, with Abbas’s advancing age, figures across party and government are carefully beginning to position themselves for when the time comes. Hussein al-Sheikh, the secretary-general of the PLO, and Majed Faraj, the security chief of the PA, are currently using their proximity to Abbas to position themselves to take over. Both al-Sheikh and Faraj, however, have no political base and are regarded by traditional Fatah leaders as upstarts whose prominence owes everything to Abbas’s support and little to their popular base or party credentials. Other candidates include Jibril Rajoub, who has skillfully used his position as head of the Palestinian Football Association to build support, and Mahmoud al-Aloul, Fatah’s vice president and a popular figure among the party’s older generation. Rajoub and Aloul may enjoy support within Fatah, but they are not PA officials. This means that in the event of a contest for the succession, they will not have access to the government resources necessary to bully or bribe supporters.

Other aspirants are playing a different game, seeking to remain above the fray so that once the main candidates have torn each other apart, they can emerge as consensus candidates. These include the authority’s prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, and former foreign minister, Nasser al-Qudwa. Other figures, conscious that they cannot win, are positioning themselves as kingmakers, most notably Dahlan, the exiled Fatah leader.

When Abbas exits the scene, it will be a moment of real danger for the authority. It is deeply unpopular, with 63 percent of Palestinians identifying it as a burden rather than an asset, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll conducted in March. The PA’s position is further imperiled by the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank, where local militant groups in Nablus, Jenin, and other cities are emerging to fill the vacuum created by the authority’s weakness. Hamas is also working to destabilize the PA by highlighting the authority’s corruption and ineptitude and by conducting terror attacks against Israel to provoke Israeli reprisals against it.

Whether the succession is swift or protracted, orderly or disorderly, it will be a dangerous moment. In the absence of a central political and security authority, local dynamics will assert themselves. Local leaders such as Rajoub in Hebron and al-Sheikh and Faraj in Ramallah may hold sway based on purely local considerations. Hamas, which has not so far politically asserted itself in the West Bank, may decide to act in areas where it has popular support by backing local leaders sympathetic to its goals.

A disorderly transition would be particularly destabilizing. A drawn-out succession process could easily lead to violence, a prospect made more dangerous by the abundance of small arms in the West Bank. If violence were to erupt, it would inevitably target Israeli occupying forces, drawing an Israeli response. To guard against such developments, Israel will inevitably intervene militarily, and local Palestinian leaders might in turn adopt a confrontational approach to Israel to enhance their local legitimacy. This would further damage a successor’s ability to govern.

FAIL TO PREPARE, PREPARE TO FAIL

A stable succession cannot be ensured once the process is in full swing. In the heat of the moment, the stakes will be too high for the competitors to be expected to cooperate. The process must begin now, while Abbas is still strong enough to shape it. He does not need to choose a successor. Instead, he need only create the process and rules for identifying and selecting capable leaders. Expecting such a process to be fully democratic may be a step too far, given the split between Fatah and Hamas and the increasingly fragmented nature of Palestinian politics. But revitalizing Fatah’s ability to produce credible leaders could at least stabilize the succession process. This will mean readmitting expelled or alienated leaders to Fatah and allowing for open competition within the movement. The process for calling a Fatah general conference in which leaders with genuine constituencies can emerge must be established, too.

Abbas is unlikely to take those steps himself, which would run contrary to his leadership style. It should instead be established by the United States, which remains the only international actor with enough diplomatic heft to assemble a coalition of European and regional leaders capable of applying concerted pressure on Abbas. Although Washington should kick-start and lead this process, it should not oversee it directly. The United States should instead work in partnership with its Arab allies, who understand Palestinian politics and know all the players.

The creation of such a process will not be easy. But if it is not established now, the likely result will be instability and even the potential collapse of the authority after Abbas exits the scene. If that happens, the impact could be catastrophic for the region. Violence could spill over from the Palestinian territories to Israel and possibly even Jordan. This would drag the United States back into an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as its attention and resources are focused elsewhere. At a time when U.S. influence in the region seems to be waning, paving the way for a stable PA succession is one way in which Washington can demonstrate that it is still able to make a positive difference.

GHAITH AL-OMARI is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiation team.


Editorial: Abbas’ hate speech does nothing to end the conflict

 

Abbas’s speech was a reiteration of old lies and libels against Israel and the Jewish people.

Jerusalem Post, Published: MAY 17, 2023


PA President Mahmoud Abbas giving his uncompromising and aggressive speech at the UN’s Nakba Day commemoration on May 15. (Photo: Screenshot from UN video).

 

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech on Monday at the United Nations was a double travesty. Not only was the text full of hate and lies; the fact that the international body held special events on May 15 commemorating “Nakba Day” – that is, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation, in the Palestinian narrative – only compounds the perversion.

Abbas was addressing a special session of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, a committee whose very name is indicative of the UN’s double standard when it comes to the treatment of Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinian leader’s hour-long diatribe was striking in its sheer number of venomous lies. There is no proof of Jewish ties to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Abbas claimed, referring to the ancient Temple Mount, where overwhelming archaeological and textual evidence proves that the First and Second Jewish Temples once stood. “The ownership of al-Buraq Wall (the Western Wall) and al-Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) belongs exclusively and only to the Islamic Wakf alone,” he said, using the Arabic names.

He accused the United States and the UK of being responsible for the displacement of close to a million Palestinians during the 1948 War of Independence – “the Nakba” – and placing Jews in “the historic Palestinian homeland” for “their own colonial goals and objectives.”

The man whose doctorate was infamously based on Holocaust denial also likened Israel’s narrative to the falsehoods disseminated by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. “They lie and lie, just like Goebbels. They lie, lie and lie until people believe,” Abbas declared.

Abbas also repeated his claim that the Palestinians were descendants of the biblical Canaanites. Even if it were somehow possible to place Abbas’s forefathers in Jerusalem at the time King David conquered it from the Jebusites – somehow being Canaanite-Jebusite Muslim Arabs, centuries before the birth of Islam – it raises the question of what they were doing when Jews were praying in the First and Second Temples. They certainly didn’t make Jerusalem their capital; as we celebrate Jerusalem Day later this week, it is worth remembering that only the Jews have ever made Jerusalem their capital.

Abbas’s untruths and distortions went on and on. “The biggest lie is the claim that Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East,” said Abbas, who has just completed the 18th year of his four-year term.

He also repeated his accusation that Israel had “committed 50 massacres” against the Palestinian people. This one was actually something of an improvement: last August, in Berlin of all places, Abbas accused Israel of committing “50 holocausts.”


Events like the UN’s Nakba Day commemoration only encourage Abbas to continue to double down on extremism and spread hatred. 

The Palestinian Authority is not a partner for peace

The absurdity of Abbas’s speech might be funny if it weren’t so serious. None of Abbas’s false claims were new. This is who the Palestinian leader is – and the UN knew what he was going to say even before they granted him a platform to say it.

Abbas’s speech was a reiteration of old lies and libels against Israel and the Jewish people. It was proof of one thing: The 87-year-old head of the PA is not a partner for peace. He is simply not interested in peace with Israel.

Abbas called for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and insisted that he was open to holding talks with Israel to that end. But at the same time, he continued to claim exclusive Palestinian rights to all the land within sovereign Israel, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip.

He also called for the right of return for Palestinian refugees within the pre-1967 lines, which not only undermines any possibility of a two-state solution but is a transparent attempt to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

Abbas’s hate speech does nothing to end the conflict. On the contrary. It is a deliberate effort to fuel Palestinian hatred and anti-normalization. This, in turn, promotes terrorism – well-rewarded through the PA “pay-for-slay” policy.

It is unlikely that the octogenarian PA president will change his ways, especially as the UN and the governments that fête him provide no incentive for him to stop spreading his antisemitic hatred. But the time has come for the international community to examine just what false narratives and blood libels it is supporting – and what the consequences might be.

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