Local Arab social media was abuzz last week with new rumors about the deteriorating health – and speculation of the death – of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The rumors began after a report on Twitter by the BBC in Arabic claimed that one of the president’s closest aides, Hussein al-Sheikh – a senior official with the ruling Fatah faction and head of the Palestinian Authority’s General Authority of Civil Affairs – had been “entrusted with some of Abbas’s substantial duties due to his health condition.”
According to Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh, “some Palestinian and Arab social media users insisted that Abbas had been transferred to hospital after a deterioration in his health condition. Others claimed that he was in a coma.”
Mahmoud Abbas, who is 86, has ruled the Palestinian Authority since 2005 when he was elected to a four-year term.
This is not the first time that rumors about Abbas’ health have circulated, as intrigues and battles continue over who will succeed him as future leader of the Fatah party and the PA. In recent months, Hussein al-Sheikh has come to be viewed as the leading candidate to succeed Abbas, simply because Sheikh is one of Abbas’ closest confidantes, according to Toameh.
In the past, Mohammed Dahlan – formerly a PA security commander in the Gaza Strip now lives in the UAE – was often held responsible for such rumors, as he is a strong political rival of Abbas.
“There is no truth to the yellow journalism news circulating about the health of President Abbas, and he is in good health and is on the top of his work as usual,” Hussein al-Sheikh tweeted about the rumors. “What is being circulated is an attempt at tampering with the internal Palestinian situation.”
Azzam al-Ahmad, another senior Fatah and PLO official, said that Abbas was in good health and that “Israeli parties” were behind the rumors.
“The news circulating about the health of President Mahmoud Abbas and assigning PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh to perform some essential tasks related to the president are not true,” he said.
Tawfik Tirawi, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and a former head of the PA General Intelligence Service in the West Bank, also claimed that “suspicious and anonymous parties” were spreading the rumors.
The issue of succession could have been resolved democratically with the presidential and parliamentary elections that Abbas, in January 2021, pledged would take place later that year in May and July. Abbas canceled the elections, however, out of fear that Hamas would gain a majority of the vote and oust Abbas in the West Bank. He was heavily criticized for pushing the elections off again, nevertheless.
Last month, Hamas won a large victory in student council elections at Birzeit University near Ramallah, taking 28 seats out of 51 on the council. The Fatah–linked bloc, on the other hand, won just 18 seats. Critics in Fatah blamed the defeat on Abbas’ policies, including the ongoing security coordination he maintains with Israel, despite the recent ongoing tensions.
These elections received more attention than a student vote normally would since Palestinians have not held national elections since 2006. The student council vote was seen as a rare democratic outlet for Palestinians to have their voices heard.
Several Fatah members in the West Bank also submitted their resignations as a result of their party’s poor results at Birzeit, including Muwafak Sahweel, secretary-general of Fatah in Ramallah and el-Bireh.
“I bear full responsibility and call for the formation of a committee of inquiry because I have a lot to say. Fatah has been filled with intruders and mercenaries,” Sahweel said in a statement.