Fatah leader reiterates his desire for unity and pins Palestinian division on Hamas during historic Bethlehem meeting.
Abbas reserves 'right' to resistance
RAMALLAH // With high expectations, some 2,000 Fatah delegates yesterday convened in Bethlehem for the opening day of the Sixth Fatah Conference, the first in 20 years, and the first ever held in the Palestinian territories. But the conference, long-delayed and long-awaited, has been dogged by controversy, and it remains to be seen how it will affect Fatah's ability to reposition itself as the Palestinians' leading national movement in the face of continued Israeli occupation and division with Hamas.
Those two issues will top the list of policy priorities at the conference, though it is unlikely that any dramatic new positions will emerge. On the contrary, the conference is shaping up as a vote of confidence in the policies of Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's leader and the head of both the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Certainly, Mr Abbas sounded bullish in his opening speech yesterday. He held up negotiations with Israel as the only way to secure peace, but also insisted negotiations would not restart unless there is a complete freeze on settlement construction in occupied territory. He also said Fatah would "reserve the right to resistance" as a "legitimate option".
"We want to uphold our rights - our rights based on international legitimacy - and we hope our neighbours will respond to the opportunity to achieve the peace that we all desire," he said at Bethlehem's Intercontinental Hotel. Most observers expect Mr Abbas to emerge strengthened from the conference, with delegates likely to endorse his programme of political negotiations with Israel and continued dialogue with Hamas, even if both are frozen at the moment.
In his speech, Mr Abbas reiterated his desire for national unity, though he referred to Hamas as "coup-makers" and insisted that Fatah would not allow its Islamist rival to "continue to divide the Palestinian people". His choice of language was immediately rejected by a Hamas spokesman as "hostile". "The coup-makers are Abbas and his Fatah party and not Hamas, which was legally elected," Fawzi Barhoum said.
He called on Fatah to pick a new leadership, eliminate corruption and "stop security collaboration with Israel". There is little reason to believe the conference will create any new dynamics between Hamas and Fatah, nor indeed between the Palestinians and Israel. Importantly, however, the conference will see elections for the two ruling bodies in Fatah, the 21-member Central Committee and the 121-member Revolutionary Council, which include the 21 Central Committee members.
Neither body has introduced new faces in the past 20 years and the lack of opportunity for younger leaders has been a source of enormous friction within the movement between the so-called young and old guards, the new leaders challenging the old leadership. This was never more apparent than when a significant number of younger leaders, led by the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, threatened to leave Fatah in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2006.
They were eventually dissuaded but not before the damage had been done and the movement had appeared weak and divided before a disillusioned electorate. Indeed, many in Fatah blame their defeat to Hamas in those parliamentary elections as well as the situation that ultimately led to Fatah's ousting as an effective force in Gaza in June 2007 on the lack of opportunity for a younger leadership to emerge.
This is all set to change in the next few days. Indeed, it is possible that as many as half the Central Committee spaces will be filled with new faces, giving Mr Abbas a boost. "Fatah needs new legitimacy, and this can come with a new leadership. That is the first step for the movement to avoid complete disintegration," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst. "Once a new leadership is in place, the movement can begin to work on reforming itself and the countless other issues that need to be addressed."
That new leadership, say observers, will see younger leaders joining the old guard in positions of power. Indeed, almost half the Central Committee is vacant, with some members dead, others incapacitated and yet others boycotting. Perhaps the most important coup for Mr Abbas in ensuring that the conference would garner legitimacy among Fatah members was that he persuaded Maher Abu Ghneim, a long-time opponent of the Oslo Accords and a prominent leader of the Palestinian diaspora, to attend.
Mr Abu Ghneim was also seen as close to Farouq Qaddoumi, the second-in-command of the PLO, but the latter has burnt his bridges with Fatah after accusing Mr Abbas and others of being implicated in the death of Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, and is one of the high-profile members of the Central Committee who stands to lose out. "Abbas will come out very strong," said Mr Khatib. "The conference will be his first significant achievement.
"He lost elections and he lost Gaza. Now he has an opportunity to make a gain." Some of the new leaders expected to be elected to the Central Committee include Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader who is often touted as a potential successor to Mr Abbas, and Mohammad Dahlan, the erstwhile Gaza strongman who retains significant support from Gaza. Most of the 450 Gaza delegates who were supposed to attend were barred by Hamas from leaving Gaza, but Mr Dahlan still appears to be a shoe-in for a position on the central committee.
Mr Dahlan, however, remains a much-despised figure in Hamas circles and his election could complicate unity negotiations. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely that any practical effect will be forthcoming immediately after the conference, whether regarding Israel or Hamas. "There is not a lot Fatah can do in Gaza other than continue unity talks," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based analyst. "Fatah knows that it cannot wrest control of Gaza from Hamas, so it can only hope that negotiations will bear fruit and that a new and unified leadership will be able to attract more support from Arab countries."