Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Handling defeat

Fatah's defeat in the Palestinian elections is no less significant than Hamas's victory, writes Graham Usher in Gaza

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Palestinian relatives of an Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant, killed in an Israeli airstrike, during his funeral in Gaza

The Beit Hanoun housing project lies on the northern shore of the Gaza Strip, as far from Gaza City as it is from the Israeli town of Ashkelon. Its sand-coloured apartments were intended to house Palestinian Authority police officers. They were built during the heyday of Oslo, when peace shimmered on the Mediterranean and the consolidation of a Fatah-run, authoritarian and visibly corrupt PA was the unspoken writ of every international "partner", including Israel and the US.

Today the apartments are surrounded by roads and playgrounds cratered by bombs and other litter from Oslo's rupture: the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Qassam rockets and Israel's relentless, overpowering retaliation. Today too some 30 apartments wear the yellow flag of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement. They were squatted by Fatah's semi-official Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades' (AMB) militia one day after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections.

"We were worried that once Hamas was in power we wouldn't get the flats. So I went to the Heath Ministry, told them I had sacrificed for the cause and took over an apartment," says Jamal Dura, an AMB fighter.

Fatah has met its greatest ever political defeat with denial and rejection. Denial is seen less in its refusal to give up office -- the electoral rout was so comprehensive that it could hardly be contested. It has come more through a refusal to concede Fatah's historical control of the PA, and all the perks, power and patronage that goes with it. The AMB's illegal expropriation of the Beit Hanoun homes is one example. There are others.

For three days after the election Fatah activists and security personnel stormed the parliamentary building in Gaza. Ostensibly this was to denounce a leadership that had brought about their fall. But every Gazan understood the subtext. "We are not going to let anyone cut off the lifeline to the security forces. This isn't a request -- it's a demand," says Dura.

The intimidation worked. On 30 January Abbas ruled that all of the PA security forces would be under the presidency, including those constitutionally answerable to the prime minister such as the Preventive Security Service or PSS (the driving force behind the Gaza demonstrations). Hamas leaders protested the ruse but not too loudly.

"We will resolve these matters through dialogue when we are in government. All I can say is no police officer will lose his job and no police salary will be cut," said Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Rejection has been expressed through Fatah's refusal of any partnership in a national coalition government headed by Hamas. "No," says Abdel-Hakim Awad, leader of Fatah's powerful Shabiba youth movement in Gaza. "I prefer to see Hamas govern alone. Then Hamas will see the difference between being in government and being in opposition, and the Palestinians will understand that Hamas was never a positive opposition".

Fatah's priority now is not governance but reform, he says. It has been made imperative by the disarray in which Fatah contested the elections -- when some 120 "independent" Fatah candidates ran against 132 "official" ones.

Post-mortem surveys have revealed the political price of that fragmentation. Thus while Fatah candidates won only 45 seats in the 132- member parliament, they actually won 41 per cent of the popular vote -- 55 per cent if the other secular parties are included, most of whom would have joined a Fatah-led government. In other words, "Hamas did not win the elections. Fatah lost them," says Awad.

His remedy is threefold. First, Fatah's existing Central Committee (FCC) and Revolutionary Councils must resign because "when an army loses a battle it is the generals that must take responsibility". Second, an interim emergency leadership should be established with the sole task of democratising Fatah "from the smallest cell to the largest region". Finally -- and only finally -- a grand general conference should be convened so that a "new Fatah" can be elected from the debris of the old.

It sounds good but it's not going to happen, says Ahmed Hilles, Fatah's general secretary in Gaza.

He rejects the charge that the FCC and other "old guard" figures are the sole reasons behind the crisis in Fatah. Instead blame rests with former PSS head Mohamed Dahlan and other "figures who by their corrupt practice built walls between Fatah and the people". This is why Hilles is refusing Abbas's order to expel the "independent" Fatah candidates. "I called Qaddumi and he says the order is illegitimate," he says. Farouk Qaddumi is Fatah's exiled chairman. He has publicly blamed Abbas for Fatah's electoral debacle.

These recriminations suggest Fatah's future will be no less schismatic than the past. Hilles agrees. "When people ask me whether Fatah will split I say, 'Fatah is split'. And the solution doesn't require magic. Those who agree with Fatah's programme can stay. Those who don't -- like Dahlan -- should leave".

A split means Fatah will remain disabled whether in government or opposition. If so, Palestinians sketch scenarios, one hopeful and the other grim. The first is that Abbas gathers those in Fatah who agree with his policies and, as the head of a finally coherent movement, negotiates with Hamas on the terms for joining the next Palestinian government. The second is that a fractious Fatah stays outside government, waiting and perhaps acting for its defeat. "Then new elections can be held," says Awad. "I'm not talking about a coup".

Other Palestinians in Gaza are less sure. Nasser Aliwar was one of the few analysts who predicted Hamas' victory. He is not so clear about the aftermath.

"Fatah is old and about to expire," he says. "Its only remedy is to reform itself so that it can face Hamas, whether in government or out. I think Abbas accepts this -- he understands that change will come with democracy. But I'm not sure whether everyone in Fatah accepts it. Some may prefer the Algerian model. That's why the crucial question for the future is not how Hamas handles government but how Fatah handles defeat."

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