By Samia Nakhoul and Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Immediately after Israel’s war in Gaza ends, all Palestinian factions including Hamas must take a serious look at the failure of their policies to achieve freedom for their people, a top Palestinian Authority official said.
Hussein al-Sheikh, 63, said war in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attacks on southern Israel meant Hamas should make a “serious and honest assessment and reconsider all its policies and all its methods” once fighting subsides.
Hamas’ attacks killed 1,200 Israelis, triggering a relentless bombardment and ground war that has killed at least 19,000 Palestinians, displaced hundreds of thousands and left much of the enclave in ruins.
Sheikh, the general secretary of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, is seen by some as a potential successor. His comments were the first time a senior PLO leader has talked publicly about Hamas tactics since the Oct. 7 attacks.
Sheikh also acknowledged the political path under Oslo peace accords was faltering and as it currently stands would not achieve the ambition of the Palestinian people for the establishment of a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders.
Sheikh and Abbas met senior White House aide Jake Sullivan in Ramallah on Friday. The Palestinians told him a new international effort was needed to persuade Israel of a comprehensive solution that includes the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Sheikh told Reuters.
“There must be a single Palestinian government governing the Palestinian homeland,” Sheikh told Reuters on Saturday in a rare interview in sleek offices adorned with portraits Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
The West Bank is divided by an Israeli wall and fence that snakes hundreds of miles across the hills. Jewish settlers, many of whom cite Biblical ties to the land, have in recent years expanded construction in areas that would become a future Palestinian state. Most countries deem Jewish settlements built on land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal.
Despite offering welcome verbal backing for a Palestinian state in the meetings, Sheikh said, Washington had not proposed concrete mechanisms or political initiatives. He reiterated a call by Abbas for an international peace conference to forge a new route.
A senior U.S. official said this week the idea of a conference had been discussed with partners, but the proposal was still at a preliminary stage.
U.S. President Joe Biden has sent a series of top officials to the West Bank to meet Abbas and Sheikh, seeking to revamp the moribund Palestinian Authority to take charge of Gaza once the war is over and unify the administration of the enclave and the West Bank.
Visiting U.S. officials have discussed the need for reforms to combat corruption, hand over broader executive powers to the prime minister and introduce new blood into the Palestinian Authority.
Despite the U.S. efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that he would not allow the Palestinian Authority to run Gaza after the war and suggested Israel would occupy it instead.
Sheikh said the Palestinian Authority was the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and would be ready to take control of Gaza after the war.
However, he recognised that the unpopular Palestinian Authority, which many Palestinians see as corrupt, undemocratic and out of touch, needed to reassess its role. Hamas by contrast has grown in popularity since the attacks, both in Gaza and the West Bank, a Palestinian poll showed this week.
Referring to Hamas, which has fought five wars against Israel since 2008, Sheikh said “it is not acceptable for some to believe that their method and approach in managing the conflict with Israel was the ideal and the best.
“After all this (killing) and after everything that’s happening, isn’t it worth making a serious, honest and responsible assessment to protect our people and our Palestinian cause?
“Isn’t it worth discussing how to manage this conflict with the Israeli occupation?”
Sheikh said 60% of Gaza was destroyed and it would cost $40 billion to rebuild over decades.
The 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel were partially successful, he said, in that they gave Palestinians an identity and led to the repatriation of two million refugees to the West Bank and Gaza from countries they fled to during the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel.
He said the PA has been weakened by Israel’s military raids and expansion of settlements.
Abbas promoted Sheikh last year. His new role effectively makes him the second most powerful man in the PLO, an umbrella for non-Islamist Palestinian factions that does not include Hamas.
He is deeply unpopular among Palestinians partly thanks to his liaison role with the occupying Israeli military. Opinion polls give him about 3% support.
In response to a request for comment, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Sheikh was “on the side of the Israeli civil administration, and him attacking the Palestinian resistance isn’t surprising”.
Sheikh said it was his job to work with Israel to reduce the suffering of Palestinians.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul and Ali Sawafta, Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Giles Elgood)