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Unravelling Mahmoud Abbas’s deafening silence in the wake of October 7

PA President Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan, in Amman, on October 12, 2023 (Reuters)

It took Mahmoud Abbas five days to publicly denounce the atrocities of October 7 – and even then, his remarks were wholly anodyne at best. “We reject the practices of killing civilians or abusing them on both sides,” said the Palestinian Authority (PA) President, during a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman. Why the ambiguous and belated response?

If Abbas had expressly condemned the attacks of October 7, he would have further alienated the Palestinian populace – almost three quarters of whom have expressed support for Hamas’s murderous cross-border rampage. Of course, even before this latest round of violence erupted, Abbas’s popularity amongst his own people was rapidly in decline. Widely regarded as ineffectual and corrupt by the people they purport to represent, the Palestinian Authority, with Abbas at its helm, is seen by much of the Palestinian public as the “handmaiden of an Israeli occupation”. His decision to indefinitely postpone Palestinian legislative elections – a mere three weeks before they were due to take place in May 2021 – was perceived by many analysts as a tactic to avoid an almost guaranteed Hamas victory. Over two years later, the October 7 attacks and Israel’s ensuing military response have served to slash the PA President’s popularity even further. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, support for Abbas’s resignation currently stands at 92% in the West Bank, and 81% in Gaza. Openly condemning Hamas’s attack would have only accentuated the wedge between the Palestinians and their nominal leader.

On the other hand, if Abbas had openly celebrated the appalling events of October 7 (in consonance with the bulk of the Palestinian public), he would have inevitably alienated the international community – of which the overwhelming majority regards the Palestinian Authority as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This legitimisation of the PA is translated into action, as vast sums of money have been handed to it each year – spearheaded by the European Union (EU) and the United States – since its establishment in 1994 as part of the failed Oslo Accords. According to statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), aid to Palestinians amounted to over $40 billion between 1994 and 2020, a significant portion of which (35.4%) goes to support the PA’s budget. The fact that the European Commission, in December 2023, announced its decision to adopt a €118.4 million assistance package to support the PA in covering its expenses throughout 2024 is a case in point. Moreover, regarding UNRWA (which rolls out the PA’s education system throughout the West Bank and Gaza), it is notable that 16 of its twenty highest donors may be seen to have a Western orientation – although many of these, such as the US, Germany, Switzerland, and Canada, have temporarily suspended their funding, given the recent evidence unearthed by Israel that at least 12 UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attacks, and that 10% of its staff in Gaza have ties to terror groups. These developments only highlight that any public endorsement of October 7 on the part of Abbas risks jeopardising the financial lifeline afforded to the PA by its Western backers.

And so, the PA President neither lauded nor castigated the atrocities of 7/10, treading a fine line between attempting (in vain) to mollify Palestinian sentiment and ingratiating himself with the international community. Yet for all of his neutral and muted response, a closer look at the PA’s policies lays brutally bare Abbas’s genuine stance on the events of October 7. The Palestinian Authority’s education system, whose textbooks and curricula are gladly distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in both the West Bank and Gaza, is replete with material that glorifies violence, incentivises terror, and promulgates antisemitism. The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), the formidable Israel-based NGO that monitors curricula and textbooks throughout the Middle East and North Africa, has reported the frightening extent to which Palestinian schoolchildren are indoctrinated from an early age: maths textbooks ask students to add up how many ‘martyrs’ died in the First and Second Intifadas; science textbooks ask students to determine the forces influencing the trajectory of a projectile fired at IDF soldiers; and various reading comprehension exercises lavish praise on Palestinian terrorists, such as Dalal Mughrabi, who perpetrated the 1978 Coastal Road massacre that claimed the lives of 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children. (One wonders how such material passed UNRWA’s Rapid Review Process, which purports to monitor all educational content distributed under its auspices.)

If the PA’s proclivity for violence is built into its education system, it finds further incarnation in its so-called ‘Martyrs Fund’. Dubbed the PA’s “pay for slay” programme by Israel, it is well-documented that the Palestinian Authority provides generous financial rewards to Palestinian terrorists serving in Israeli jails (as well as to the families of deceased terrorists) – and that the amount increases with the period of incarceration; that is, the severity of the attack. In 2017, for example, the PA’s total expenditure for directly funding terror stood at $355 million. Indeed, it was knowledge of this that prompted the Taylor Force Act, signed into law in March 2018 by then-US President Trump, that cut all direct funding to the PA until it pledged to cease its incentivisation of terror. Unsurprisingly, the move has failed to yield the desired results – and Itamar Marcus, of Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), has estimated that the PA will have paid more than $2.8 million – in October alone – to the families of those who perpetrated the October 7 massacre. Is it any wonder, then, that Israelis are unpersuaded by the international community’s calls for a two-state solution – for the establishment of an independent state along Israel’s borders, to be headed up by the very authority that quietly endorses its destruction?

Having now entered the twentieth year of his four-year term, Abbas totters on, downplaying his incentivisation of violence and delicately walking a tightrope that both Israelis and Palestinians are eager to yank from under his feet (albeit for very different reasons). With Israelis still reeling from the enormity of Hamas’s attack, and the tremendous destruction and loss of life wrought on the Gaza Strip since the IDF initiated its response, both peoples are understandably struggling to see any light at the end of the tunnel. But whenever it finally comes into view, both are hoping that the figure of Mahmoud Abbas will be firmly out of sight.

About the Author
Maximillian Kanter is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. He is also a research assistant at the International Centre for Defense and Security, a foreign policy think tank based in Tallinn, Estonia. The views in this blog are the author’s own.
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