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Profiles of Palestinian Leaders

October 4, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

On October 3, frustrations over the Gaza Strip’s steady decline into anarchy after the withdrawal of Israeli forces came to a head in the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinian parliament accused the cabinet of PA President Mahmoud Abbas of mishandling the PA’s response to violence between the militant group Hamas and Palestinian security forces in Gaza. The legislature voted to force PA President Mahmoud Abbas to ask his prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, to form a new cabinet “capable of delivering its tasks.” On the same day, angry Palestinian police officers stormed Gaza’s parliamentary building to protest the killing of a police commander by Hamas forces, and demand more and better weapons with which to fight the militants.

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Below are quick profiles of some of the most prominent Palestinian leaders:

In (or soon to be out) of government:
  • Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Yasir Arafat’s successor as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Abbas is currently the most influential Palestinian political figure. Elected in January 2005, Abbas is considered more moderate than Arafat. Since assuming the PA presidency, he has attempted to end Palestinian attacks on Israelis and consolidate the PA’s complex array of security forces, with limited success. He faces strong opposition from entrenched interests in his own party, as well as a growing challenge from the militant group Hamas. Born in 1935 in Safed, Galilee, in what was then-British Mandate Palestine, Abbas was raised in Syria, where his family fled in 1948. He studied law in Egypt and received a doctorate in history from Oriental College in Moscow. Abbas, a close associate of Arafat, helped the former leader found Fatah, the political wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); Arafat headed both organizations until his death in November 2004. In the 1970s, Abbas established contacts with left-leaning Israelis, and in the 1980s, he spoke out against Arafat’s support of then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Abbas became head of the PLO’s international relations office in 1980. A key participant in the Oslo peace process, he conducted negotiations with the Israelis and accompanied Arafat to the White House in 1993 to sign the Oslo Accords. In the summer of 2002, President Bush and representatives from the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union unveiled the so-called road map peace plan (new link), which required Arafat to lay the foundations of a viable Palestinian government. Under pressure from those groups, Arafat named Abbas prime minister in March 2003; Abbas resigned after four months of power struggles with Arafat. He returned to power after being elected to the PA presidency.
  • Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). Qurei, the PA prime minister, is an Arafat loyalist and a member of the Fatah old guard. Like Abbas, he is thought to be a more moderate and pragmatic leader than Arafat was, although he has had little success implementing Abbas’ reforms. Qurei trained as a banker and succeeded Abbas as PA prime minister in 2003. Born in Jerusalem, Qurei joined Fatah in the 1960s and came to prominence in the mid-1970s, when he headed the group’s economic wing in Lebanon. He designed a key Palestinian development plan, which was presented to a World Bank aid conference in 1993 and became the cornerstone of the Palestinian development strategy. Qurei also headed the Palestinian Legislative Council, was instrumental in the Oslo negotiation process, and helped design the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. After the parliament-recommended shakeup October 3, Qurei will keep his post, but must name a new cabinet within two weeks.
  • Mohammed Dahlan. A former head of the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) in Gaza, Dahlan was minister of civil affairs in Abbas’ cabinet. Dahlan is seen as a member of Fatah’s younger “new guard,” but some critics say he and his peers lack the national stature and credibility to negotiate with the Israelis. Born in a Gaza refugee camp, Dahlan was a founder of the Fatah Youth Association in 1981. Arrested eleven times by Israel, he was deported in 1987 and made his way to PLO headquarters in Tunis; from there, he continued to orchestrate street protests in the West Bank and Gaza, earning Arafat’s trust. When Arafat and his fellow Fatah partisans returned to Palestinian territories under the terms of the Oslo Accords in 1994, Dahlan was made Gaza’s security chief. Civil-rights advocates criticized his tactics as head of the Gaza security forces, accusing him of using the PSF to harass and intimidate Arafat’s political enemies. While he is generally popular with younger members of Fatah, his periodic arrests of Palestinian militants—demanded by Israel and the United States—have been deeply unpopular on the Palestinian street. A critic of Arafat who both participated in and suffered from PA infighting, Dahlan resigned as security chief in June 2002, but returned to serve as interior minister in Abbas’ short-lived 2003 cabinet.
  • Jibril Rajoub. Rajoub was Abbas’ national security adviser and has been a longtime rival of Dahlan for control over the PA security forces. A former national security adviser to Arafat, Rajoub also headed the PSF in the West Bank. He is seen as a pragmatist and moderate who used his forces to clamp down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants in 1996 and 1997. He has said militants who target Israeli civilians undermine the Palestinian cause, but has also argued that bringing Hamas and other extremist groups into the political process is the only way to move the peace process forward. Born near Hebron, Rajoub was arrested at 15 for throwing a grenade at an Israeli convoy and spent seventeen years in an Israeli prison, where he learned English and Hebrew. He was released in a prisoner swap in 1985 and expelled to Lebanon in 1988 during the first intifada. He moved to Tunis and eventually became a close associate of Arafat. He survived an Israeli rocket attack on his home in May 2001. In July 2002, Arafat, resisting U.S. pressure to consolidate PA security forces into a single agency under Rajoub’s leadership, fired Rajoub.
  • Nasser Yusuf. The interior minister and head of national security in the Abbas government, Yusuf was singled out for special criticism in the parliamentary report, which called for him to be fired. Yusuf once served as Gaza police chief, and in the 1990s, oversaw national security in Gaza and the West Bank. As interior minister, Yusuf was tasked with bringing the many branches of the Palestinian security forces under his control—which critics say he failed to do. Yusuf was a Fatah commander in Jordan in the late 1960s, a brigade commander in Lebanon, and a general in the Palestinian National Liberation Army. He received a master’s degree in Islamic history from the University of Lebanon, studied military strategy in the Soviet Union, and attended Fatah leadership training in China. He has been a member of the Fatah Central Committee since 1989. He was once considered close to Arafat, but they fell out over Arafat’s refusal to consolidate the PA security forces as required in the road map peace plan. During Qurei’s term as prime minister, Yusuf briefly held the job of interior minister, but Arafat stymied his efforts at security-force reform.
  • Nabeel Shaath. A longtime politician and negotiator, Shaath was deputy prime minister and minister of information in the Abbas government. He formerly served as minister of planning and international cooperation, as well as foreign minister under Qurei. A member of Fatah’s central committee since 1971, Shaath worked with the organization in Beirut. In 1974, he headed the first PLO delegation to the United Nations. He was involved in the Oslo negotiations with Israel and headed the Palestinian negotiating team from 1993-95. He also took part in subsequent peace negotiations, including those at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001.
Other figures:
  • Marwan Barghouti. One of the most popular Palestinian leaders, Barghouti is currently serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison. He briefly challenged Abbas for the PA presidency, which caused alarm among some Israeli and U.S. officials: Barghouti eventually withdrew from the race and supported Abbas. Born in Ramallah, he became active in the Fatah movement at age 15. He was arrested and sent to Israeli prison, where he learned Hebrew. After his release, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. One of the leaders of the first intifada against Israel in 1987, he was arrested and deported to Jordan, where he lived for seven years. He was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 and earned the respect of the Palestinian street by criticizing corruption among PA officials and human-rights abuses by the Palestinian security services. During the second intifada, Barghouti worked with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a division of the Tanzim militia associated with Fatah that conducts violent attacks against Israeli civilians. Israeli soldiers arrested Barghouti in 2002; he was convicted of four counts of murder in an Israeli court and sentenced to five life terms in prison.
  • Khalid Meshal. Meshal is the highest-ranking leader of Hamas, the militant anti-Israel group considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Hamas has launched violent attacks against Israeli civilians for years; in response, the IDF systematically assassinated Hamas leaders, including Sheik Ahmed Yassin (March 2004) and Ahmed Rantisi (April 2004). In 1997, Meshal was the target of a botched assassination attempt by Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.
  • Mohammad al-Hindi. A physician and Gaza-based political leader of Islamic Jihad, a militant group that carries out violent attacks on Israeli civilians and is considered a terrorist group by the United States. Hindi has been targeted several times by Israeli attacks. Islamic Jihad, like Hamas and Hezbollah, has the power to disrupt the peace process if it refuses to renounce violence.
  • Sari Nusseibeh. A well-known academic and peace advocate, Nusseibeh was born in East Jerusalem to a wealthy and prominent Palestinian family. He received a bachelor’s degree from Oxford in 1971, then worked in Abu Dhabi before earning his doctorate in Islamic philosophy from Harvard University in 1978. Through the 1980s, he taught both Palestinian and Israeli students at Birzeit University in the West Bank and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has long called for two independent states, Israel and Palestine, existing peacefully side by side. He has also called for the demilitarization of the Palestinian state and the renunciation of suicide bombings. He was named president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem in 1995, and joined with Ami Ayalon to launch the “People’s Voice” initiative in June 2003.
  • Yassir Abed Rabbo. Abed Rabbo, an experienced negotiator, was one of the first Palestinians to call for reconciliation with Israel and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine alongside Israel. He is one of the strongest advocates for peace from Palestinian civil society. Born in Yaffa, he was educated at the American University in Cairo and in 1968 helped found the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a leftist party within the PLO; he broke away from the DFLP in 1991. He joined the PLO executive committee in 1971 and headed the PLO’s department of information and culture from Tunis in the 1970. He was a Palestinian negotiator at nearly every round of peace talks from 1974 to 2001. He became the PA’s first minister of culture and information in 1994. In 2001, Abed Rabbo founded the Palestinian Peace Coalition and led informal negotiations with Yossi Beilin that resulted in the Geneva Initiative. He also served as minister of cabinet affairs in Ahmed Qurei’s government.
  • Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite political and militant organization considered a terrorist group by the United States. Hezbollah is based in Lebanon and supported by Syria and Iran. Nasrallah wears a black turban, marking him as a sayyed, or direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. Nasrallah grew up in Beirut and at age 15 went to study Islam in Najaf, the Iraqi city sacred to Shiite Muslims. He fled Iraq in 1978 to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime, returned to Lebanon, and became politically active. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Nasrallah helped found Hezbollah and acted as its field commander in the south. Under the leadership of Abbas Mussawi and then Nasrallah—who took over as head of the group after Mussawi’s 1992 assassination by IDF forces— Hezbollah waged a guerilla war against the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon for nearly 20 years. Israeli forces withdrew in 2000. Hezbollah has also grown into a potent political force in Lebanon, providing social services in many towns and sending representatives to parliament.

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