The Fatah movement’s seventh general conference will open in Ramallah Tuesday night under the shadow of serious disagreements and threats of schism that have sparked clashes throughout the West Bank.
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The absence of a diplomatic horizon and the ongoing rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip will also weigh on the atmosphere.
Convening the conference, which last met in 2009, has become a key goal of Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. His associates say that holding the congress will send a message to both Arab states and Israel that Abbas still holds the reins and sets the agenda.
But his rivals within Fatah charge that he is trying to exploit the conference to bolster his rule and sideline opponents, because he lacks any answer to the key question of how Fatah and the PA leadership should pursue their struggle against Israel.
Over the past month, tensions have risen throughout the West Bank, and especially in Ramallah, as various factions within Fatah hold round-the-clock meetings and seek to form alliances against their political rivals.
The 1,400 conference delegates will elect two party organs: the 130-member Revolutionary Council and the 21-member Central Committee. The latter is Fatah’s ruling body.
Abbas has worked for months to ensure that delegates from all over, including Gaza and the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, will be able to attend. His staff has been in touch with both Jordan and Israel to ensure that delegates will be able to cross from Jordan into the West Bank.
A senior Fatah official close to Abbas told Haaretz that just holding the conference would be a success for Abbas, given that Arab countries have been pressing him for months to postpone it and focus instead on reconciling with his chief rival, Mohammed Dahlan. The official said Abbas’ refusal to readmit Dahlan to Fatah’s ranks is the main reason for the recent tension between Ramallah and Cairo.
Many no-shows in protest
But several people affiliated with Dahlan have already announced that they won’t attend the congress, charging that its only purpose is to settle political scores.
For instance, Jamal Tirawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who represents the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, announced on Monday that he will boycott the conference. Fatah, Tirawi charged, has ousted many of the people who led the Palestinian struggle for generations, and the current leadership, instead of trying to unify the ranks, has intensified the schism. His announcement could add fuel to the fire in Balata, where armed men have been battling the PA security forces for months.
Jamal Jahjouh of the Qalandiyah refugee camp also said he would skip the conference. “To my great sorrow, this is a clan-based, tribal congress, controlled by Abu Mazen and his people, not a congress that represents all the movements within Fatah,” he said, referring to Abbas by his familiar, traditional Arabic name. “It’s about score-settling and a takeover of the party, and we cannot be party to it.”
Abbas’ associates reject this criticism, charging that his opponents, especially Dahlan, have ulterior motives and are funded by countries with no interest in Palestinian unity.
The conference will run until Saturday, but elections for the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council will take place in the first two days. The main battle will be over slots on the Central Committee, which chooses the party’s secretary-general and could also indicate whom it sees as Abbas’ heir apparent.
But only 10 to 12 of the 21 Central Committee seats will actually be up for grabs. Abbas and Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for murder in Israel, are both shoo-ins, while three other people – Jibril Rajoub, Mohammed Shtayyeh and Mahmoud Al-Aloul – are also virtually certain to be elected. In addition, three slots are reserved for Abbas appointees, with three other slots reserved for a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, a woman and a Palestinian Christian, unless members of these groups win election on their own.
One big question is to what extent the middle and younger generations will be represented on the Central Committee, given that most of the candidates are 60 and older.
Though there has been talk of appointing Barghouti by general acclaim rather than a vote, Barghouti’s associates say he insists on running for election. His associates also plan to use the conference to demand answers about Fatah’s diplomatic policy.
“We’re at a complete standstill,” a delegate affiliated with Barghouti told Haaretz. “There’s an internal schism and the Arab world is torn to pieces. The timing of the conference is very sensitive, and we’re concerned with more than just elections.”
Abbas’ office is still working on the speech he will deliver at the opening session, which is expected to provide answers to some of the questions Fatah members have been asking. But sources in his office said there won’t be any major surprises, as he does not intend to announce a strategy shift.
“Abu Mazen won’t announce an armed struggle,” one said. “But he will explain that the Palestinian situation is at a watershed, given the current standstill.”