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Are the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas mobilizing to take over the PLO?
By Ehud Rosen
On March 30, 2018, a campaign called the “Great Return March” is expected to begin. The campaign will include a mass, “non-violent” march to Gaza’s border with Israel and other marches in several countries to identify with Gaza. Several Israeli sources have already underlined the leading role played by Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates across the globe in supporting and promoting the march, albeit with the probable involvement of other organizations like Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the PFLP, and Fatah. According to Israeli TV news, Hamas spent $10 million behind the scenes to fund and organize the march. The TV news report referred mainly to senior Hamas official Fathi Hammad, designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist, as connected to the march. The Israel-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) specifically highlighted the involvement in promoting the march of Zaher Birawi, suspected of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas.
Who is involved? Birawi, a former director of the London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), and others connected to PRC and its initiatives are joined by other UK Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the newly launched global “70th anniversary of the Nakba” Campaign. It should be assumed that for the Muslim Brotherhood, this march is part of a wider mobilization to try to implement its long-held aspiration to take over the PLO finally.
This suggests that a new phase can be expected, both in terms of the threat to Israel’s security and with the efforts to advance the delegitimization campaign – of which the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have been key players for many years. The Islamist side is apparently relying on its abilities to mobilize the masses around Palestinian-related issues, amidst the fading away of the nationalist Palestinian appeal.
In this context, it is worth noting that Majed al-Zeer, who heads the PRC, recently issued legal proceedings against Thomson Reuters (owner of the financial intelligence service World-Check), which listed al-Zeer and the PRC in its “Category: Terrorism” on the private database of potential banking clients. The PRC claims there is no evidence whatsoever that it has any involvement in terrorism.
“70th Anniversary of the Nakba” Campaign
On March 14, 2018, the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad held a press conference in Beirut, where it announced the launch of its “70th anniversary of the Nakba” Campaign, which uses the English and Arabic hashtags #Nakba70 and #نكبة70. The campaign is held in cooperation with the Palestinians in Europe Conference; the FIDDER Turkish Organization in Solidarity with Palestine; INTIMAA International Campaign to Preserve the Palestinian Identity; and Aaidun Jordanian Society for Return and Refugees. Ziyad al-Aloul, a senior UK-based activist suspected of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, serves as spokesman of the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad. He maintained that “through the campaign… the conference aims to activate the role of Palestinians abroad, mobilizes the potential which advocates the issue, and highlights the suffering of refugees in the camps.”
The official promotional video for the campaign reveals its major challenges:
The campaign will include “direct action” activities, such as demonstrations and also legal and political initiatives. The video also sets the milestones for the campaign regarding the main reference dates over the next few months:
The following is a short review of the organizations leading the “70th anniversary of the Nakba” Campaign:
The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad:
The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad first convened in February 2017 in Turkey and brought together thousands of Palestinian figures from around the globe under Islamist auspices, with many of its organizers affiliated with UK Muslim Brotherhood structures, such as Essam Yousseff, the aforementioned Majed Al-Zeer, and Zaher Birawi. Almost all of the speakers had an Islamist background, echoing a pro-Hamas agenda. The closing statement of the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad referred to the Oslo Accords and their consequences as having caused damage and a catastrophe for Palestinian rights. It maintained that the PLO should withdraw from the agreements and that subsequently democratic elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC) should be held – open to Palestinians worldwide – which will, in turn, form a new Executive Committee, capable of devising a comprehensive national program.
The PLO viewed the conference as an attempt to challenge and replace it. PLO supporters argued that the organizers were motivated by factional interests, instead of the interests of the Palestinian people. Ziyad al-Aloul dismissed the charges, saying that they continue to view the PLO as the legitimate representative of Palestinians. “We are trying to work with the PLO to find ways to help our people in Palestine and in exile,” he said.
Tayseer Khaled, head of the PLO’s expatriate affairs department, who expressed his objection to the conference, said that the PLO “had neglected diaspora Palestinians after it signed the Oslo accords with Israel;” he added that his department was now working with diaspora communities in Europe and the United States to resist Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Fatah denounced Qatar and Turkey, the two countries leading the Muslim Brotherhood axis, and accused them of reinforcing the internal Palestinian division.
The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad was later transformed into a permanent body. Its General Secretariat has been holding regular meetings in Beirut and Turkey, and various dedicated committees were already formed. It is headed by the demographer Salman Abu Sitta, a previous chairman and apparent founder of the PRC, member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), and an honorary adviser to the UK-Islamist English media outlet Middle East Monitor (MEMO). Abu Sitta has three deputies and a secretary. The General Secretariat is headed by veteran Islamist thinker Munir Shafiq.
The Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad has already been represented at central Islamist gatherings. In November 2017, for example, its Secretary Mohammed Al-Ansari reportedly participated in the 10th Annual Convention for Palestine in Chicago, organized by the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), one of the key U.S. Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated players in the delegitimization campaign. It also reacted in December 2017 to the declaration by U.S. President Trump that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital, stating that this decision has falsified history and committed blatant aggression against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims – to the extent of declaring an unjust war against them. The conference called for a boycott of the “Zionist entity” and for continuous anti-normalization work, in addition to a boycott of American interests. Ziyad al-Aloul now claims that the General Assembly of the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad has 450 members, and due to the geographic spread of the Palestinians, it has become “the only hope for the Palestinians in the diaspora.”
The Palestinians in Europe Conference:
The Palestinians in Europe Conference was covered in a 2010 JCPA paper dedicated to the British arena. It is one of the most important of the PRC’s initiatives, and it first convened in London in 2003. In the last few years, the conferences have been jointly organized by the PRC, the General Secretariat of Palestinians in Europe Conference (or now the Europe Palestinians Conference Organization), and a relevant Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated body in the country in which they take place each time. The Islamist nature of these conferences has been highlighted more than once. In May 2013, for example, President Abbas and his ambassador to Brussels, Leila Shahid, were accused of conspiring “against the interests of all Palestinians, at home and in diaspora, by engaging in activism against the 11th Conference of Palestinians in Europe, the biggest Palestinian gathering in the diaspora,” which took place in Brussels that year.
This year, the conference is due to be held in Milan, Italy on April 29, 2018, under the banner “70 years and we shall return.” The organizers are the Europe Palestinians Conference Organisation, the PRC, and a group called The Palestine Coalition in Italy (PCI). The Palestinians in Europe Conference is headed by Majed al-Zeer, who also heads the aforementioned PRC. The Palestinians in Europe Conference also issued a call to interact with the “70th anniversary of the Nakba” Campaign.
Filistin Dayanışma Derneği (FIDDER):
FIDDER is a core Turkish Palestinian advocacy group that is part of the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated network first covered in a 2011 JCPA dedicated paper. FIDDER emerged in February 2007 and is widely connected to Islamist and pro-Hamas support. FIDDER claims to have official relations with government and parliamentary circles, unofficial links with societies, endowments and figures, and involves itself in networking between the Turkish people and Palestinian institutions and figures, and vice versa.
FIDDER has already cooperated with the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad in the past. In January 2018, for example, FIDDER ran a stand of solidarity with al-Quds in Istanbul, as part of the conference’s “Electronic Quds Day Campaign.” Palestinian and Syrian refugees came to demonstrate together with Turkish activists under the slogan “al-Quds unites us.”
Intimaa – The International Campaign to Preserve the Palestinian Identity:
Intimaa 2016 defines itself as a popular campaign held for the seventh year in a row, overseen by Palestinian institutions and committees specializing in various fields “in order to enhance national feelings.” It lists 239 organizations as participating institutions, and among them are professional syndicates, charities, and other civil society groups. In May 2013, various areas of operation of the campaign were outlined, connected to Palestinian heritage and traditional clothing, writing articles, media appearances, and participating in demonstrations and vigils to commemorate the Nakba. At the launch of the Intimaa campaign’s 2016 events, its General Coordinator Yassir Kaddourah was a speaker, and Alaa Abu Al-Hijaa spoke on behalf of the Europe-based participating organizations.
Yassir Kaddourah is a Lebanon-based Palestinian activist, who also oversees other projects connected to Palestinian heritage, including documenting the history of families, football and sports events, and more. On his Facebook page, he widely publicizes campaigns and meetings of the Popular Conference of Palestinians Abroad, in which he also appears to participate. Alaa Abu Al-Hijaa previously headed the western region at the Palästinensischen Gemeinschaft in Deutschland (PGD), probably the most active pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas body among the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated bodies in Germany. In May 2017, Intimaa and FIDDER collaborated in organizing events in Turkey to commemorate the Nakba.
Aaidun – the Jordanian Society for Return and Refugees:
On its Facebook page, Aaidun provides details about its fields of operation, such as spreading the culture of “return” among Palestinian refugees, spreading the culture of rejecting [Israeli] settlements, legal oversight for refugees, and other legal services. It seems that Aaidun mainly holds relevant joint events with local Jordanian societies. It is headed by Kazem Ayesh, who was previously a member of the Executive Bureau of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and who was responsible for the portfolio of “return.”
Ehud Rosen specializes in modern political Islam, focusing on the ideology and history of the Muslim Brotherhood. He lived in London for five years while working toward his PhD at SOAS, University of London. He is currently a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.