As members of the Palestinian political party head to Bethlehem for the first Fatah congress in twenty years, the organisation is struggling to heal its own divisions and revive its credibility as the voice of Palestinian nationalism. Even though Fatah's rival, Hamas, has so far refused to grant permission to party delegates from Gaza to leave the territory, the long-awaited congress will go ahead, starting on August 4 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Fatah faces divisions within and without
As members of the Palestinian political party Fatah head to Bethlehem in the West Bank for their first congress in twenty years, the organisation is struggling to heal its own divisions and revive its credibility as the voice of Palestinian nationalism. Even though Fatah's rival, Hamas, has so far refused to grant permission to party delegates from Gaza to leave the territory, the long-awaited congress of the political party - the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation - will go ahead, starting on August 4. Fatah's fifth congress in the movement's history will be their first since gathering in Tunisia in 1989. "Hamas has conditioned the departure of some 400 Fatah members from Gaza for the congress on Abbas's forces freeing hundreds of Hamas activists seized in West Bank round-ups," Reuters reported. "Hamas also wants more passports, issued in the West Bank, for its Gazan officials and supporters. Asked by Reuters if the dispute might hold up the congress, four years in the planning, Nabil Shaath of the Fatah Central Committee said: 'The congress will be held anyway.' "Intisar al-Wazir, another Central Committee member, said Abbas had told Hamas through Arab mediators that if it agreed to let the Gazan delegates out, he would free 400 Hamas detainees - half before the congress, the rest during. More Hamas men would go be released from West Bank jails later, Wazir said. [...] "Fatah delegates from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have begun arriving in Bethlehem with the consent of Israel, which agreed to Gazan delegates travelling to the West Bank for the congress. Israel has otherwise kept Gaza under a strict blockade. "Wazir said the Central Committee decided to raise the number of congress participants from 1,550 to 2,256, to accommodate more marginal Fatah members. The faction's decision-making Revolutionary Council convenes on Sunday to discuss the measure. "Boosting the turnout could compensate for the absence of Gaza delegates, one Fatah official said." The Ma'an News Agency reported that a decision to boost participation could provoke a boycott by Fatah in Gaza. "Fatah leadership in Gaza has not yet taken a decision to boycott the movement's sixth conference Central Committee Zakariyya Al-Agha said later Saturday. "A final decision will be taken once the Central Committee meeting in Ramallah is over. That meeting is expected to address the rumoured addition of 900 members to voting lists, which Fatah members in Gaza called an 'illegal' attempt to bolster support for current Central Committee members who will stand for re-election." Ghada Karmi wrote in Bitterlemons: "From the start the conference preparations have been riven with internal disputes, conflicts and threatened splits. There were differences over where it should be held, many members arguing for Amman as a place not subject to Israeli restrictions. Farouk Qaddumi, the head of the PLO's political department and an old rival to Abbas, refused to meet in any territory under Israeli occupation. He followed this up two weeks ago with the shocking accusation that Abbas had been behind a plot in collusion with Israel to poison Yasser Arafat in 2004. "Whether true or not, this can only deepen the already existing rupture in Fatah between the old and the young, and between Qaddumi's followers and those of Abbas. It may even lead to two Fatah conferences, one in Bethlehem and another elsewhere, perhaps in Damascus or Beirut. Even without that, those Fatah delegates opposed to Abbas are likely to be excluded from the Bethlehem meeting, as are the delegates from Gaza whom Hamas' foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, has vowed to prevent from attending as long as Hamas prisoners languish in Palestinian Authority jails. What credibility or legitimacy the resulting conference will be left with under these circumstances is unclear. "Those of us in the diaspora, watching these developments, can only feel a mixture of concern and impotence, angry at this pointless internecine fighting and unable to stop it. Worse still to imagine how triumphant Israel must feel for having created a situation where over half the Palestinian people are excluded from their own political process, while a minority of them tears itself apart under its occupation. Destroying the Palestinian national cause by fragmenting the Palestinians was always Israel's aim." In Al-Ahram Weekly, Khaled Amayreh wrote: "Earlier this month, [Mr Qaddumi] dropped a bombshell during an impromptu press conference in Amman, saying he was in possession of an authentic document showing that Abbas and Dahlan were involved in an Israeli plot to poison the late former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Abbas and Dahlan scoffed at the revelations, accusing Qaddumi of seeking to abort the upcoming Bethlehem conference. However, the effects and aftereffects of Qaddumi's bombshell refuse to evaporate as a number of Fatah leaders are demanding that 'a serious investigation' into Qaddumi's allegations be carried out by a 'neutral and credible body'. Such an investigation per se would amount to a vote of no-confidence in Abbas who is unlikely to allow it to materialise. "According to reliable Palestinian sources, Qaddumi has voiced his willingness to mend bridges with Abbas if the PA leader agrees to sack Dahlan, dissolve the American-backed government of Salam Fayyad and halt the inquisition-like campaign against Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank. "Such conditions are unlikely to be accepted by Abbas since doing so would seriously harm PA relations with the United States whose vital support for Abbas is directly linked with his anti-Hamas stance." Lamis Andoni wrote: "Fatah, the movement that has led the Palestinian struggle for decades, is at a dangerous crossroads. At stake is not only its unity but more significantly its mere survival. "It faces tough choices. In order to keep itself relevant on a regional and international level it would need to project itself as a 'moderate' force committed to a non-existing peace process, thus risking the further demise of popular legitimacy. To salvage its legitimacy and unity it would need to disengage from the Palestinian Authority's compliance to American and Israeli terms that aim at turning the movement into a malleable political tool and an enforcer of Israeli security. "But more so than ever in its history, Fatah is facing a real rival that has popular legitimacy and backing by key regional powers. Iran and Syria are seeking to further boost their negotiating credentials by supporting the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and are ready to accelerate the demise of both Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Qatar openly aids and promotes Hamas as the alternative movement, again to enhance its role as a regional power broker to be reckoned with. "Egypt, Jordan and other so called 'moderate' countries, the supposed backers of Fatah, are junior partners of Washington in its plans to turn the movement into a huge security apparatus and ensure the Palestinian people's submission. More significantly, they could easily switch sides if the US and Israel decide that Hamas is ready to accept the terms of engagement in the 'peace process' or that it could be a more effective enforcer of Israeli security. "But the fundamental struggle for Fatah at this historic juncture is to restore its identity, unity and the core of its soul. Its merger into the Palestinian Authority after the signing of the Oslo accords distorted its identity and function. The one-time backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and embodiment of Palestinian national rights, Fatah has been reduced to a ruling party largely, but not solely, dependent on proving itself as a 'peace partner' in a process that has so far consolidated Israeli occupation and expansionism."