- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

BETHLEHEM, West Bank | The convention convened by Fatah last week was supposed to bolster the founding Palestinian nationalist movement so it could block the Islamist Hamas’ ascendancy and cut a peace deal with Israel.

But after five stormy days of infighting, the once-in-a-generation conference only highlighted how the U.S.-backed party remains fractured, raising questions about whether it is strong enough to make tough compromises in negotiations while fending off accusations from its Hamas rivals.

“They have not been able to resolve one fight since the beginning. I am not optimistic,” said Assad Awiwi, a lecturer at Hebron University. “Fatah is deteriorating and needs a long time to rehabilitate itself. Four days cannot erase 20 years of mistakes.”

Though delegates unanimously endorsed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the party leader on Saturday, the conference had to be extended several days beyond the scheduled finish on Thursday because of delegates’ inability to resolve disputes.

There’s been dissent on how to count delegates from the Gaza Strip blocked from attending by Hamas, charges that the party’s older establishment is suppressing the empowerment of younger officials, and a debate on whether Fatah’s founding tactic of guerrilla warfare still belongs in a political platform.

At stake is a vote for Fatah’s top two leadership bodies and a policy statement covering negotiations with Israel, and reconciliation with Hamas in Gaza. But the proceedings are also sending a message to the Middle East about the gridlocked state of Palestinian politics.

“Their infighting gives credence to the claim that there is no Palestinian peace partner, hinders the prospects of peace and throws a huge wrench at Obama’s efforts toward a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said Adib Farha, a senior policy adviser at the American Lebanese Coalition.

The movement, founded in 1959 by the now-deceased Yasser Arafat, has been in decline ever since the breakdown of the Camp David peace negotiations in 2000.

The transition from a guerrilla liberation movement in exile bent on destroying Israel to a political party charged with overseeing self-rule in the Palestinian territories alongside Israel’s military occupation has proven rocky and incomplete.

Palestinians liken Fatah to a clan united by only the weakest of political glue, a consortium of communists and Islamists, technocrats and militants, home-grown activists and exiled rebels. The lack of unity was one of the factors in the party’s 2006 electoral loss to Hamas and then the 2007 Gaza overthrow by the Islamic militants.

Hamas and Fatah have been trading insults for the past two years, broken up by occasional talks on reconciliation, but Palestinians are increasingly pessimistic about the prospect for a near-term resolution. Hamas’ refusal to allow several hundred delegates to leave the Gaza Strip was an attempt to protest the arrest of its activists in the West Bank.

Fatah is divided between Mr. Arafat’s contemporaries and the officials who took over the Palestinian Authority during the 1990s peace process, and the home-grown political activists in the West Bank and Gaza who were sidelined.

Almost all Fatah members speak enthusiastically about voting in newer, younger faces who are unconnected to an establishment accused of corruption, but instead, there have been accusations that the old guard has packed the delegate rolls to suppress the next generation.

“We are led by 75-year-olds, and their experience is the experience of the Cold War,” said Muhueeb Awwad, a 45-year-old parliament member from Fatah. “We are post-Arafat and post-liberation movement.”

Before his death in 2004, Mr. Arafat leveraged his iconic stature, power and money to keep a modicum of order. His successor, Mr. Abbas, lacks such revolutionary credentials and has been tainted by his rejection of violence in favor of peace talks. As a result, intraparty rivalries and factions have only festered.

The outbreak of the Palestinian intifada nine years ago discredited proponents within the movement that favor negotiations with Israel as a route to statehood, while bolstering the militias from Hamas and Fatah’s own guerrilla underground.

Now, with the second intifada over and the Palestinian Authority security forces cooperating with Israel and the U.S. to re-establish law and order in the West Bank, there’s a debate under way about whether “military resistance” to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has a place in the political program.

Mr. Abbas’ generation, which controls the Palestinian Authority, wants only a vague reference that Palestinians have the right to resist militarily. They have hitched their political fortunes to the U.S. and the success of the U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel. One of those figures, Nabil Shaath, who drafted the policy program, said the section on resistance specifically rules out attacks on civilians.

But others in Fatah think that there must be a specific reference to military resistance, and they support cultivating ties with Middle Eastern countries beyond U.S. allies such as Egypt and Jordan.

“The younger people want to bring Fatah back to its roots. Military resistance is one of the ways to get our freedom,” said Salah Abu Mohammed, who owns a financial-trading company in Jordan. “We don’t say we can’t accept Israel, but we have the right to resist.”

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