RAMALLAH – Fatah, the leading guerrilla movement within the Palestine Liberation Organization, has moved one step closer to becoming a normal political party. Its just concluded sixth congress was held for the first time in the occupied territories, which meant that former guerrillas from Lebanon and Jordan were allowed entry by Israel. The conference, it appears, succeeded in reuniting and reinvigorating the movement, which has suffered since the death of its founder and long-time leader, Yasser Arafat.
More than 2,000 delegates, representing former Fatah fedayyin (guerrillas) and intifada activists, voted to continue all forms of resistance for the liberation of Palestine. Yet the term “armed resistance” was missing from all the documents approved at the conference. Mahmoud Abbas – unanimously elected as Fatah’s leader and commander-in-chief – made clear that while all options remain available for ending the occupation, the preference is still negotiations. While some (such as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak) took the resistance rhetoric of some delegates seriously, Fatah spokesman Nabil Amr officially assured all concerned that Fatah is committed to “peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Any organization that has not provided democratic mechanisms for change and renewal tends to age and become monotonous and ineffective. This aging and dullness became most evident in the past few years, as Fatah first lost the 2006 legislative elections to Hamas, and then its presence in the Gaza Strip.
Signs that Fatah is moving towards becoming a normal political party were ample. Gone were the khaki suits and militaristic paraphernalia, replaced by business suits and proper conference IDs for delegates. Backroom decisions and top-down guidance was replaced by a democratic free-for-all that saw many of Fatah’s historic leaders fall to the wayside, making room for younger, locally popular leaders. Prisoners held in Israeli jails were granted 20 seats in the enlarged 100-member revolutionary council. A jailed intifada leader, Marwan Barghouti, was among the highest elected new leaders to the central committee, the movement’s executive body.
Naturally, the 20-year hiatus since the last congress created a huge gap that was quickly filled by intifada veterans rather than old-style guerrillas, who had dominated the movement since its establishment. Fourteen of the 19 elected members of the central committee are first-time members, most of whom represent the leadership of the 1987 uprising in the occupied territories. The shifting age and geographic location of the Fatah membership was the reason for the failure of some of Fatah’s historic leaders, such as Ahmad Qureia and Intisar Wazir, the widow of the late Abu Jihad.
Moreover, holding the congress in Palestine ended the role of many Fatah leaders who had opposed the Oslo accords, such as Farouk Qaddoumi and Mahmoud Jihad. Sidelining men like Qaddoumi, whose accusation, on the eve of the congress, that Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan had helped Israel poison Arafat, also distances Fatah from its one-time alliance with hard-line Arab countries such as Syria and Libya.
While the old guard had to strike a balance between the different Arab countries that backed the PLO, the new guard will have to find a workable solution with their rivals in Hamas if a viable compromise agreement with Israel is to be found. Opinions vary, with some calling for a tough position towards Hamas and others advocating a softer approach.
Another major challenge facing the new Fatah leadership will be how it deals with the duality of holding party posts while also holding ministerial positions within the Palestinian Authority. Some are calling for Fatah leaders to abstain from ministerial roles, whereas others see no reason why one can’t be a leader of a party and the government simultaneously.
In his acceptance speech, Abbas referred to the leaders of the first Intifada, telling the congress that they drew the guidelines that have become the movement’s political platform. Leaders like Barghouti, former preventative security chief Jibril Rajoub, and Gaza’s Dahlan are now in the driver’s seat of the Fatah movement.
Dahlan, accused by some of being responsible for the loss of Gaza to Hamas, gave a strong speech accusing the previous Fatah leadership of having lost Gaza long before it actually fell to Hamas in June 2007. Dahlan detailed how the former Fatah leadership repeatedly ignored his warnings and his pleadings with the central committee members to come to Gaza and see for themselves the situation on the ground.
The Fatah congress also dealt a blow to the abuse and corruption that have plagued the movement in recent years, especially since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Speaker after speaker insisted that the movement’s weakness was brought about by the fact that its leaders succumbed to the temptations that come with government positions. Thus, for example, Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala’a), a former prime minister and senior negotiator who is accused of owning shares in a Palestinian company that supplied cement for Israel’s construction of the hated wall that cuts through Palestinian territory, lost his position within Fatah’s leadership.
The Fatah movement has a long way to go before it becomes a full-fledged political party. The delegates overwhelmingly agreed that the movement must keep open the option of returning underground if negotiations for statehood fail, while being ready to become a political party if a Palestinian state is born. Nevertheless, the results of the Sixth Fatah Congress reflect a clear bias in favor of becoming a party rather than an armed resistance movement.