Fatah Backs Two-state Solution, Sharpening Rift With Hamas

Fatah platform calls armed resistance 'a right,' but will first focus on boycotts, protests against Israel.

BETHLEHEM - Fatah on Sunday endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, underlining its ideological conflict with the Islamist Hamas and drawing political battle lines for their next election showdown.

The movement adopted the program at its convention - Fatah's first in 20 years - that also tried to finesse the key principle of violent resistance against Israel, calling it a right but preferring measures like civil disobedience.

The decisions were similar to the groundbreaking moves of the last convention in 1989, but the gathering in Bethlehem, which was supposed to end last Thursday after three days, has been held up repeatedly by old splits over the key issues.

Lurking in the background was the challenge facing Fatah from the rival militant Hamas group, the issue of the elections tentatively set for January, and the internal Fatah splits between young and old, moderates and militants.

On Sunday, the convention voted to endorse a platform that calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while reserving the movement's right to take up arms against Israel. At the same time, it encouraged Palestinians to use more peaceful means to pressure Israel, like demonstrations and supporting a boycott of Israel abroad.

"At this stage, we are focusing on popular struggle, but the armed struggle is a right reserved to us in international law," said senior Fatah member Nabil Shaath.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the adopted Fatah platform as not very promising. But he added there was no other way but to sit down and strike a deal, calling on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to enter negotiations.

With the platform in place, the delegates turned to electing members of two bodies that run the movement day to day.

Hundreds gathered outside a hall in the Bethlehem convention center were handed empty voting sheets, and a list of some 700 candidates for 80 available seats on the revolutionary council and another 100 for the 18-member central committee. It took Abbas almost 20 minutes to fill out the lengthy ballot when he voted Sunday afternoon.

Abdullah Faranji, a senior Fatah member, said the voting would end the fights over the group's leader's legitimacy.

The strongest competition is taking place between Fatah's hard-line old guard - many in their 80s - and a generation of younger Palestinians who have emerged from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and back Abbas' more moderate approach.

One of the strongest contenders is the charismatic Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, 50, who is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in terrorist attacks in Israel.

But Fatah founders like Salim Zanoun, 87, who lives in Jordan, are also vying for spots.

Abbas was hoping for members who will support his program, based on negotiating a peace treaty with Israel.

Voting results were expected Monday.