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The Fatah movement's Central Committee - the body from which Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned last week - for many years was probably the most important policy-setting body of Palestinian national movement (the PLO). The importance of this relatively small committee, of 15 to 21 people, derived from its including most of Fatah's founders. Fatah today is essentially the Palestinian ruling party, and although the Palestinian national movement was never a one-party organization, Fatah traditionally had virtually complete hegemony over the PLO.

Most of the important political decisions made by the PLO over the last few decades began with discussions in Fatah's Central Committee, which was considered a kind of politburo for the Palestinian leadership. From there, decisions were sent on to Fatah's Revolutionary Council, and only after did they reach the PLO's committees and institutions, which include representatives of the PLO's other member movements as well.

The Central Committee is supposed to be chosen by Fatah's convention, a body that numbers more than 1,000 members, but the convention has not met for years. Even in the years when it did meet, however, the Central Committee's composition was in practice determined by the leader Yasser Arafat.

Many veteran members of the Central Committee have died. The first to go was Yussef Al-Najar, who was shot during an Israel Defense Forces assault on PLO headquarters in Beirut in 1973 (Operation Spring of Youth). Khalil Al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), who was considered Arafat's second-in-command, was also killed by the IDF, during a raid on his house in Tunis in 1988. Two other important members of the committee, Salah Khalef (Abu Iyad) and Hayil Abdel Hamid (Abu Alhul) were killed in Tunis during the 1991 Gulf War by their bodyguard, a member of Abu Nidal's organization. Khaled Al-Hassan died of illness in Morocco in 1994, and Faisal Husseini of Jerusalem died of a heart attack a few years ago.

Those who died were replaced by new members, some of them inheriting their positions. Intisar Al-Wazir (Umm Jihad) replaced her husband, Abu Jihad, and Hani Al-Hassan replaced his brother, Khaled.

Almost all the committee's members are representatives of what is known as the "foreign PLO" that spent the 1970s and 1980s not in the territories, but in PLO headquarters in Lebanon and Tunis. When the Palestinian Authority was established, Arafat added two representatives of the "domestic PLO" to the committee - Faisal Husseini from the West Bank and Dr. Zakharia Al-Ara from Gaza.

Some members of the Central Committee opposed the Olso Accords. Some of these, like Sahar Habash and Hani Al-Hassan, acceded to Arafat's request to come to the territories and join the PA despite their opposition to Oslo. Others, like Farouk Kaddoumi and Mohammed Ghaneim (Abu Maher), decided to stay abroad.

On arriving in the West Bank and Gaza, the committee members - almost all representatives of the "foreign" PLO - met a new generation of local Fatah activists, all of whom were graduates of the first intifada. The most prominent was Marwan Barghouti, who gained fame during his term as chairman of the student council at Bir Zeit University and was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 1996 as a representative of Ramallah district.

Barghouti, who was not included in Arafat's cabinet, devoted all his energies to trying to ground the Fatah movement in the ordinary residents of the territories so that it could function well as a ruling party. For this purpose, he embarked on a vigorous campaign to hold internal elections within the movement.

Barghouti planned to hold elections in every district of the West Bank and Gaza to reorganize the movement's chapters on a democratic basis. However, he met with only partial success. The veteran Central Committee members, backed by Arafat, did not want internal elections. Many were relatively old, and having been absent from the West Bank and Gaza for years, they were not well known to the general public. Their legitimacy as Fatah leaders stemmed from the fact that they were among the movement's founders, those who paved the way for the ones who came after them.

Thus Barghouti succeeded in holding internal elections only in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem districts. In the other districts, Arafat and the Central Committee members intervened to stop elections. Later, Arafat urged Hussein Al-Sheikh, a Fatah activist from the Ramallah district, to run against Barghouti, and Al-Sheikh won.

Arafat also helped the veteran Central Committee members to compete in elections for the PLC, which is the PA's parliament. Umm Jihad was elected from the Gaza district, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) from Jerusalem, Hakham Balawi from Tul Karm, Nabil Shaath from Khan Yunis and Abbas Zakhi from Hebron. When another Central Committee member, Dr. Zakharia Al-Ara, ran in Gaza but lost, Arafat compensated him with an important appointment - Fatah's representative on the PLO executive council.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), chose not to run in the elections for the PLC. Asked why, he replied: "I belong to the historic leadership of Fatah and the PLO." All of these power struggles within the Fatah movement, between the veteran "foreigners" and the younger "domestic" activists, acquired importance because they took place against the background of a gradual decline in the movement's stature.

Ever since the first intifada (1987-1990), the Islamic movements have begun to move to the forefront of the struggle against Israel. Hamas, founded in 1988, has acquired more and more supporters. But Fatah, which led the PLO to the Madrid Conference in 1991 and into Oslo two years later, is perceived as being too soft, even defeatist.

This change has been evident in all the elections for student councils and major unions in the West Bank and Gaza. Since the Madrid Conference, Hamas candidates have racked up impressive achievements in elections for the student councils of Bir Zeit, A-Najah, Bethlehem and Gaza Universities.

In elections for trade unions - those of doctors, lawyers, engineers and pharmacists - and workers' committees, as in various welfare agencies, Islamic candidates have also usually succeeded in beating their opponents from Fatah.

The efforts by Marwan Barghouti and his adherents to organize Fatah chapters in the territories thus took place against the background of their sense that Fatah was losing its support in the street. Barghouti and his colleagues blamed the Central Committee members for this: They are old, they rest on their laurels, they are cut off from the field and not infrequently tainted by corruption as well.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada, and the demands for reform of the Palestinian Authority, exacerbated the internal struggle within the Fatah movement. More than a year ago, for instance, when the two strong men of the Palestinian security services - Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank and Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza - quit their jobs, for different reasons, they called for prompt internal Fatah elections to choose a new leadership.

But more than anything else, what is responsible for the decline in Fatah's status is the feeling that the diplomatic policies the movement has followed ever since it opted for the path of peace negotiations have led to a dead end. Fatah pushed the PLO and the entire Palestinian public onto a certain diplomatic track, and it failed. Three years of bloody fighting and severe Palestinian hardship have encouraged the Palestinians to look for guilty parties, and the Fatah Central Committee is a convenient address. The committee is the heart of the conservative ruling establishment, in both the PA and the PLO. The general public identifies the committee with failed diplomatic policies.

Thus it is possible to see Abu Mazen's resignation from the Central Committee not only as an additional crisis in the divided Palestinian leadership, but perhaps even as an attempt to distance himself from the veteran leadership, which is perceived as being responsible for the failures of both the PA's administration and the national struggle. The question is whether this step is capable, even slightly, of giving Abu Mazen greater legitimacy as the PA's prime minister.