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Radical in theory:

Fat'h's Long-Awaited Sixth Congress in Bethlehem

By Khaled Amayreh, August 15, 2009


A Fat'h supporter holds a portrait of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a celebration in the streets of Balata refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus

Fat'h has been in a jubilant mood having succeeded in holding the movement's Sixth Congress in Bethlehem in the West Bank despite a host of serious obstacles, including charges by the group's second-highest ranking leader, Farouk Kaddumi, that Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas had connived with Israel to poison late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Hamas, too, made good on its threats to prevent Fatah delegates in the Gaza Strip from travelling to the West Bank to take part in the Bethlehem conference.

However, Hamas's desperate feat seems to have had little impact on the deliberations of the conference and may actually have had a boomerang effect, namely provoking many Fatah delegates to give their votes to Muhammed Dahlan, an arch foe of the Islamic group who in the mid- and late- 1990s carried out a harsh crackdown on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

To the chagrin of Hamas, Dahlan has won a seat on Fat'h's Executive Committee, as so did a number of anti- Hamas Fatah figures, such as Tawfik Tirawi, former head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) General Intelligence, Hussain Al-Shaikh, another former security chief, and Azzam Al-Ahmed, head of the Fat'h parliamentary caucus.

Rafiq Natshe, a veteran Fat'h leader who apparently failed to win a seat on the faction's executive body, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly shortly before the election results were announced. He described the outcome of the conference as amounting to a "renewal" and "re-birth" of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) mainstream faction.

"Fat'h after Bethlehem is going to be different. We can say that the conference constitutes a renewal, a sort of rebirth for the movement. Fatah will once again be the revolutionary vanguard that will lead the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and liberation. And in shouldering this task, we will use all means under our disposal, including armed struggle."

Natshe said the main goal behind the conference was to revitalise Fat'h and restore its internal unity. "I think we have achieved this goal. Yes, there still will be non-conformist voices here and there, but this happens all over the world."

He described the "bad chemistry" between Abbas and Qaddumi as having to do more with a form than with substance, saying that talk about disunity within Fatah was highly exaggerated.

In his speech before the conference, Abbas struck a conciliatory note toward Qaddumi, saying, "We are all human beings, we make mistakes, but you will always remain our brother."

Natsha argued that the Fat'h Sixth Congress was "certainly bad news for Israel and for those betting on the capitulation of the Palestinian people. "True, the conference was held under the Israeli occupation, but I challenge critics to cite a word, or phrase or statement made during the conference that can be interpreted as suggesting that Fat'h is being co- opted or pressured to change its constants. On the contrary, from watching the Israeli media, we see that Israeli leaders are attacking the conference."

Natsha added: "Besides, we had organised two general elections under the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian National Council (PNC) held a session under the Israeli occupation. So why was it okay then whereas it's a crime now?"

The Weekly asked Natsha if he thought the rift between Fat'h and Hamas was becoming more insurmountable than before the conference. "Without prevarications, the answer is yes," he said. "Hamas made a big mistake by barring Fatah delegates from travelling to the West Bank to participate in the conference. This generated a lot of bitterness among Fat'h delegates."

Hamas resorted to this measure in the hope that Fat'h would press the PA to free hundreds of Hamas supporters languishing in PA jails and interrogation centres. On Monday, 9 August, Fadi Hamdan, a 27-year-old Hamas detainee, died in PA custody. This latest death -- the third this year -- is likely to exacerbate the already poisoned atmosphere between the two largest political camps in the occupied territories.

Natsha is generally viewed as a "moderate Islamist" within Fatah. He says that Fat'h and he personally will continue to press for a speedy reconciliation with Hamas.

With regard to the peace process with Israel, Natsha seemed more radical than the bulk of his fellow Fat'h delegates. He said Fat'h didn't and wouldn't recognise Israel and certainly would never ask other Palestinian factions, including Hamas, to recognise Israel.

However, the PLO did recognise Israel as part of the Declaration of Principles, or Oslo Accords, and it did so without receiving reciprocal Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. This generated a lot of indignation within the Palestinian community and gave Fatah's critics -- especially Hamas -- a lot of propaganda ammunition to criticise Fatah and the PLO for "surrendering" to Israel and compromising Palestinian rights.

In its 30-page political platform, issued on the second day of the conference, Fat'h vowed to refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. However, the movement apparently refused to annul its erstwhile recognition of Israel even though Israel continues to refuse to recognise Palestine.

In interview with the Weekly, Natsha expressed what observers describe as "maximalist attitudes" vis- -vis a prospective peace deal with Israel. He said Fatah would never accept the concept of land swap with Israel whereby the Jewish state would retain dozens of large colonies in the West Bank, especially in East Jerusalem, in return for compensating the Palestinians with a swathe of land in Israel itself equal to the annexed settlements both in quality and quantity.

"Fat'h doesn't believe in a land swap, and Israel must return to the borders of 4 June 1967. The refugees must also be repatriated to their homes and villages. This is Fatah's position, and it will remain unchanged. The Palestinian Authority and government are free to think as they see fit, but Fat'h is also free to think as it sees fit," said Natshe, overlooking the nearly umbilical relationship between the PA and Fatah.

It is highly likely that Natsha's views enjoy overwhelming support among Palestinians at home and in the Diaspora. However, it is also unlikely that the current Palestinian leadership will take a strong stance on issues such as East Jerusalem and the refugees, mostly in deference to the United States and also in order to retain hope of working out a peace deal that would allow the Palestinians to have their own state.

Natsha's tone is viewed as more rhetorical than real, even by Fat'h's standards. One Fat'h delegate to the conference, who asked to remain anonymous, remarked that Fat'h's pronouncements shouldn't be taken literally and certainly not too seriously. "When it comes to rhetoric, it can be limitless. But in when it comes to the real test, I am afraid that arm wrestling can produce results."


Fatah's second coming

By Khalid Amayreh, August 15, 2009


A Palestinian youth looks askance at the rubble following an Israeli air strike on the border between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza

The week-long Fat'h sixth general conference in Bethlehem was wrapped up Tuesday with the election of a new 18-member executive committee, fourteen of them new faces. The newly-elected members include several former chiefs of the Palestinian Authority (PA) security agencies, including Muhammed Dahlan, the controversial former Fatah strongman who is widely considered an arch-foe of Hamas.

Many of the movement's veteran leaders, such as Ahmed Qurei' and Al-Tayeb Abdul-Rahim, failed to win a seat on the powerful committee. Receiving the highest vote were veteran Fat'h leader Abu Maher Ghunaim, who received 1338 votes, followed by imprisoned Fat'h leader Marwan Barghouthi with 1063 votes.

Fifteen of the 18 elected or re-elected members are based in the occupied Palestinian territories, something that means that the estimated 4.5 million Palestinian refugees living in the Diaspora will have the lowest representation ever in the movement's most powerful body.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas who was selected as Fat'h chief for a second term will appoint three other members to the committee, including a woman, a Christian and a third person. There are speculations that Abbas might appoint his arch-rival Farouq Qaddoumi as a member. However, it is uncertain whether Qaddoumi will accept such an offer.

A few weeks ago, Qaddoumi accused Abbas and his former aid Muhammed Dahlan of having connived with Israel to poison the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Abbas called the charges a "cheap attempt" to derail the convening of Fatah's conference.

However, during the conference, Abbas sought to extend a hand of reconciliation to Qaddoumi: "And to our brother Abu Lutf (Qaddoumi's nom de guere) we say we are human beings, we sin and mistake, but the best of sinners are those who repent. In any case, you remain our brother, and we all belong to the warm bosom of this great movement."

The controversy over Qaddoumi's charges and Hamas's adamant refusal to allow Fat'h delegates from Gaza to travel to the West Bank initially created not a small amount of perplexity within the Fat'h leadership.

However, Abbas's determination to hold the conference on time, come what may, eventually proved to be a right decision if only because he succeeded in bringing in more than 2200 Fatah delegates representing the movement's grass-root supporters at home and in the diaspora.

Most observers in Palestine believe that Abbas is likely to enhance his standing, both within Fat'h and the larger Palestinian community after the conference. Fat'h, too, stands to gain, at least in terms of popularity, as it manages to rebuild and renew itself, guided by a new executive committee and revolutionary council the majority of whose members come from the movement's younger generations.

However, it is also true that much of the optimistic talk about Fat'h's "new birth" is based on the assumption that the movement has learned the right lessons from its past blunders. But this assumption is not necessarily accurate, since the Bethlehem conference has left most files having to do with corruption, especially financial corruption, nearly completely untouched.

In fact, some of the most notoriously corrupt Fat'h officials have been elected to the executive committee as well as the less important revolutionary council.

Corruption notwithstanding, the post- Bethlehem euphoria might well prove to be completely unjustified if the enduring deadlock with Israel continued as is widely anticipated.

The conference concluded with Fat'h adopting a political program that sought to satisfy everyone. The 30-page document reasserted the traditional "Palestinian constants", including a total Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and a just solution to the plight of the refugees, in accordance with UN resolution 149.

Furthermore, Fat'h's platform reaffirmed commitment to the two-state solution based on the borders of the 4th of June, 1967, and warned that the Palestinians wouldn't resume negotiations with Israel unless the latter froze all settlement expansion activities. It also stressed the right to use all forms of resistance to end the occupation, including armed struggle, which Israel considers "acts of terrorism."

However, it is widely believed that the reference to armed struggle in the final document is mostly rhetorical given the fact that Fat'h can't really wage armed struggle and enjoy Israel's benediction at the same time.

Indeed, Fat'h leaders are well aware that it was Israel that allowed the Bethlehem conference to take place, and that had it not been for the Israeli consent to hold it, the conference would have never seen the light of the day.

As to the rift with Hamas, it is possible that a more confident Fat'h could show more flexibility in reconciliation talks with the Islamic movement. Hani Al-Masri, a Palestinian columnist argues that the composition of Fatah's new executive committee is going to be advantageous to the cause of national unity. "It is true that Abbas has become stronger, but the new executive committee is also strong and is not going to be a mere rubber stamp in his hand as the previous one was," Al-Masri says.

Hamas elaborated tersely on the outcome of Fat'h's convention, calling the conference "an internal Fatah affair." The organization's spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said "the new Fatah leadership will be judged by the extent to which it commits itself to the national cause and interests."

There is no doubt that the Fat'h conference in Bethlehem was an important step towards the rebuilding and renewal of a movement plagued by internal feuding, corruption and cronyism. However, it is also true that one should not exaggerate what a single conference can do in terms of resolving the numerous, insurmountable problems facing the Palestinian people and their enduring cause.

Fat'h's ultimate success -- as indeed is the case with other Palestinian groups -- hedges on the extent to which it can do in terms of extricating Palestinian rights from Israel's parsimonious hands.

Hence, the more logical question to be asked is not what Fat'h, and other Palestinian factions for that matter, will do, but rather what can they do, given the harsh political reality.

The proceedings of Fat'h's general conference took place in a Bethlehem building overlooking the illegal Israeli settlement of Har Homa. This fact alone must have demonstrated to the 2200 Fat'h delegates that the road to true freedom is still very long.







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