Sixth Congress of Fatah

Press review – week from August 3 to 7, 2009

Tuesday, Fatah has begun its sixth Congress since creation, the last was held in 1989. 2350 delegates were expected at the meeting which has the purpose to review the structures and strategies of the organization created five decades ago by Yasser Arafat.

Under U.S. pressure, Israel has granted visas to some 400 Fatah delegates from the diaspora. Among these, some have never been in the Palestinian territories. On the contrary Hamas has prevented hundreds of Fatah delegates from the Gaza Strip to go to Congress by threatening them to be put in jail, despite the offer made in extremis by Mahmoud Abbas to release prisoners from Hamas.

PNN (Palestinian News Network) reports the security measures disturbing the life of the little town of Bethlehem on the eve of the Congress because of existing tensions within Fatah that some people were not invited for political reasons but also because of a lack of space.

The stakes of the meeting are great, as Sofiane Abu Zaida says to RFI (Radio France International): « Fatah has no direction, no program and no strategy. That is why this conference is so important for us : to clarify our ideology and to make the party operational again ». Yet according to a survey conducted by PNN, few Palestinians believe that real change will result from this congress.

RFI says that two Fatah authorities must be renewed: the Central Committee (18 seats) and the Revolutionary Council (120 seats). This Congress is also expected to attend the consecration of Marwan Barghouti, a candidate to the Central Committee but still held in a prison in Israel where he was sentenced five times with life imprisonment because of his role in the second intifada. Another comeback is also expected, the one of Mohamed Dahlan, a former personality in Gaza, considered to be close to the United States.

The internal gaps in Fatah

Asked by the RTBF, Professor Bichara Khader explains the double gap currently affecting the Movement of National Liberation of Palestine (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al Filistini, whose acronym reversed, Fatah, has given its name to the party) . The first gap exists between the so-called « young guard » of Fatah, that RFI describes as the generation of the intifada, and « the older generation”  the one of the founders of the movement, from the entourage ofYasser Arafat. The young generation accuses the old one for its disastrous management of the party that led to the current situation with Israel, but also to the victory of Hamas in 2006.

The second gap then exists between Palestinian from the territories and Palestinians from exile. On RTBF, Bichara Khader notes that the former are often more pragmatic, more aware of the situation and the opponent, unlike the Palestinians living in Arab countries who are often more radical. Le Monde explains this division by the fact that Palestinians from outside were the first ones to « re-palestinise » the resistance movement by creating Fatah, while the Palestinians remained motionless inside the territories facing the Zionist advances. In 1994, the PLO headed by Yasser Arafat settled in the occupied territories and enlarged the break with the diaspora who often feel neglected since.

Everybody now looks to Mahmoud Abbas: Will he succeed in reunifying the movement? Does  he have the support of the majority?

In the opposition between the « young guard » and the « old guard », Le Figaro says that Mahmoud Abbas has chosen the young activists of the two intifada of 1987 and 2000. They know the reality of conflict and most of experienced the Israeli jails. They are more pragmatic and less corrupt than the old militants.

Opposed to this trend, the « old guard » is led by Farouk Qaddoumi, the chairman of the Central Committee as reported by RFI. From a « harder » orientation than the young, they fear the power of the latter, better locally rooted. The sixth congress is the first to take place in the Palestinian territories (the previous ones took place in other Arab countries), reflecting the will of Mahmoud Abbas to « refocus the movement in this generation rooted in the Palestinian territories against the will of the « historical » of the diaspora.  »

As an illustration of these large divisions, Le Monde relays the charge laid by Farouk Qaddoumi against Mahmoud Abbas, blamed to have led a conspiracy against the person of Yasser Arafat.

AFP (in La Libre Belgique) reports the mea culpa made by Mahmoud Abbas at the opening of the congress. « Because of the stalled peace process, but also because of our mistakes, some of our behaviors rejected by the public, our poor performance, our distance from the pulse of the street and our lack of discipline, we lost the parliamentary elections (in 2006) and then we lost Gaza, « he said to the delegates of his party in Bethlehem.

These excuses were not sufficient to exclude the expected requests for accounts by the « young guard » on the financial management of Fatah since the last Congress twenty years ago, highlights RFI.

Intra-Palestinian quarrels between Hamas and Fatah

Since the victory of Hamas in legislative elections in 2006, Fatah is losing ground within the Palestinian population. One of the questions raised in Congress concern the attitude to adopt to cope with the increasing success of Islamism.

As Professor Khader says to RTBF, it is futile to believe that reconciliation between Fatahand Hamas will come soon, as the six rounds of negotiations conducted under the auspices of Egypt did not bear any fruit.

Le Monde describes the problem: Hamas was born in the territories and continued the armed struggle without explicitly recognize Israel’s existence. Facing it, Fatah is a movement born in exile, that took time to find local roots in the territories, and that has chosen to focus on the negotiation option since Oslo. But this strategy seems to have led to no achievement.

The Courrier International says that, by integrating the Palestinian Authority, Fatah has rejected his first identity. Often reduced as the ruling party to implement measures coming from negotiations with Israel, Fatah holds today its legitimacy from its role of « partner in peace. » On the other hand Hamas enjoys  a much stronger regional support than does Fatah. Only Egypt, Jordan and other « moderate » states seem to support the movement of Mahmoud Abbas, but mainly to obey to Washington. But if the United States now decide to initiate dialogue with Hamas, will those states still support Fatah?

Resistance vs. Negotiations, armed struggle vs. Peaceful resistance

Facing the strategic choice of Hamas, Fatah needs to clarify its own position in the conflict: armed struggle, peaceful resistance, negotiations …?

The Palestinian Maan News Agency reported that Mahmoud Abbas opened the session of the Congress on Tuesday by reiterating that even if peace was their choice, resistance remains their right, which is recognized as legitimate by international law.

He also added: « We are not terrorists, and we reject any description of our legitimate struggle as terrorism. It is our firm and permanent position, » reported AP (in La Libre Belgique).

In Le Monde, Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinians’ attachment “to the option of peace and negotiations ». The French daily explains how the term « armed struggle » is now little used to the more generic « resistance », but the former will not disappear from the movement’s charter. If Fatah officially removes this option, it abandoned completely this kind of fight to Hamas and might lose more ground within the population.

Nevertheless, the preference of the head of the PLO goes to negotiation and peaceful resistance as evidenced by the NY Times, that explains that the Palestinian leader encourages the development of resistance in the form of popular protests and demonstrations. Speaking about the same topic on RTBF, Professor Bichara Khader employs the more precise term of « civil disobedience ».

The Courrier International finally sums up the challenge of this strategic choice and the dilemma presented to Mahmoud Abbas: « To keep its place on the regional and international arena, he should be considered as   » moderate  » and committed to a peace process that does not exist,  with the risk of losing even more of his legitimacy in the eyes of his people.  »