- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Revolutionary Council of Yasser Arafat’s dominant Fatah faction meets today for the first time since the start of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, with some members hoping to overthrow or sideline an “old guard” whom they blame for political and military failures and rampant corruption.

The attack on longtime leaders is being described as a push for democratization, but is also seen as a way to clip Mr. Arafat’s wings without openly attacking a man widely revered as the “Symbol of the Revolution.”

Fatah, founded by the Arab League in 1964, is facing calls from some members to transform itself from a revolutionary, secret anti-Israeli organization to a genuine political party with real accountability rather than summary military discipline.

One Fatah figure, Imad Shaqour, called in a recent series of Arabic newspaper articles for Mr. Arafat to hold elections within six months, outlaw all unofficial military groups and invite all factions to transform themselves into political parties.

Also under consideration is whether to amend the Fatah constitution, which expresses a determination to eliminate Israel and pledges “Revolution Until Victory” — a slogan that continues to appear on every Fatah written statement.

“Fatah needs to be reformed at all levels — its organizational structure, its administration, its finances,” said the group’s Jerusalem leader, Hatem Abdel Qader. “We cannot continue to march with all these problems.”

The younger members of this secretive body aim to attack the established leadership for what one Palestinian Authority official yesterday called the “superlucrative” exploitation of their government and party positions.

It is far from clear, though, whether any major figures will be toppled, or how, if younger elements gain more influence, this would affect the intifada — the violent uprising against Israel that began in September 2000.

Also at issue is whether to continue allowing an armed group within Fatah, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to continue suicide bombings inside Israel such as the one that killed eight persons Sunday.

Despite years of ambiguity about who controls the brigade, Mr. Arafat’s national-security adviser and former preventive security chief, Jibril Rajoub, said twice in English at a press conference this month that the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade “is part of Fatah.”

The group has taken responsibility for a string of atrocities, including the last two suicide bombings on Jerusalem buses, usually in statements issued on official Fatah letterheads with the Al Aqsa symbol alongside.

The decision to convene the Revolutionary Council was driven in part by unprecedented anger among ordinary Palestinians, who say their fragile economy — already battered by the intifada — is being undermined by massive corruption.

Pointing to packets of potato chips, cornflakes, soaps and chocolates made in Israel, Russia and Italy, a Bethlehem shopkeeper last night complained that the products cost up to 50 percent more in the West Bank than in Israel.

The Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority licenses only one importer per product, he said, and then receives a monthly kickback equaling 3 percent of the importer’s purchase price, which goes directly into the bank accounts of senior officials.

The importer, meanwhile, is able to grossly overcharge for the products because of the lack of competition, said the shopkeeper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While a lively debate on the corruption issue was expected this week, the chances of the Revolutionary Council amending the Fatah constitution appeared remote.

In several articles of the constitution, available on Fatah’s official Web site (www.fateh.net/e_public/constitution.htm), the group’s aims are stated clearly.

Article 19 reads: “Armed struggle is a strategy not a tactic, and the Palestinian Arab People’s armed revolution is a decisive factor in the liberation fight and in uprooting the Zionist existence, and this struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished and Palestine is completely liberated.”

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel and the United States demanded that the Palestinian Covenant, a statement drawn up decades ago by different Palestinian factions, of which Fatah was the largest, remove references to Israel’s destruction.

That removal was promised but, according to some U.S. and Israeli observers, was never carried out. The Palestine National Council convened but referred the matter to a subcommittee, officials said.

In any case, the Oslo Accords appear to make no explicit demand for Fatah, the governing party in the Palestinian Authority, to change its own constitution.

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