Fatah remains rife with discord, its leaders stumbling along the road of the Palestinian cause, writes Khaled Amayreh in Israeli-occupied Ramallah
Despite numerous promises and assurances for political reform within the Fatah movement, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is still unable to hold its long overdue Sixth Congress.
The last time the supposedly annual Fatah convention was held was in Algiers in 1988 when Yasser Arafat declared the "independence of Palestine".
Fatah leaders, including its formal leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Secretary-General Ahmed Qurei, have been vowing to hold the Sixth Congress for several years. However, no sooner had a date for holding the conference been designated than postponement was decided due to "unforeseen circumstances" and "in order to ensure the success of the conference".
The recurrent -- and seemingly endless -- postponements have created a lot of frustration and disenchantment within Fatah's rank and file, especially at the grassroots and intermediate levels. Activists and regional leaders have been accusing the "leadership" of flying in the face of the movement and preferring to appease certain regional and external powers.
Curiously, such accusations are met by fresh assurances that the Sixth Congress will be held sooner rather than later. But in March, a preparatory committee representing various wings within the movement abruptly adjourned its meetings in Amman without reaching a consensus even on who will participate in the conference.
Sources within Fatah reported that, "instead of making progress towards holding the conference, we progressed towards making more disagreements."
According to these sources, the "fiasco" in Amman reflected the chronic differences between Fatah President Abbas and the movement's other leaders, such as Farouk Al-Qaddumi, head of the PLO Political Department; the so-called Arafites (loyalists of former Palestinian Authority/PLO leader Yasser Arafat) and "the anti-Oslo figures" who are opposed to recognising Israel and revoking the Palestinian National Charter.
The same sources revealed that the main contentious point impeding reaching a consensus agreement that would have paved the way for holding Fatah's convention was a "single-headed determination" by Abbas to "impose" his supporters as "candidates" for key positions in various Fatah institutions, such as the movement's paramount Executive Committee.
Among those allies is Diab Al-Ali, a fiercely anti-Hamas figure who holds the title of "commander of the Palestinian national forces" in the West Bank. Last year, it was widely reported that Al-Ali held a secret meeting with Israeli army commanders at the Jewish colony of Beit El near Ramallah during which he reportedly told the Israelis that "we and you are allies and we have a common enemy and that is Hamas."
Al-Ali was also quoted as saying that he was willing and ready to reoccupy Gaza with Israeli backing.
Disquieted by the break of the committee's deliberations in Amman, Abbas assured a number of prominent and independent-minded Fatah figures, including Ahmed Qurei, Salim Zaanoun, and Mohamed Rateb Ghoneim, that he would see to it that they be granted "membership by default" in Fatah's Executive Committee on the grounds that they are part of the movement's "historical leadership".
Abbas, the sources added, was hoping that winning the "lesser opponents" such as Qurei would help him win in the expected confrontation with Qaddumi. The latter is a prominent critic of the Abbas leadership and the close security coordination between the Israeli army and Palestinian security agencies.
In addition to the "groupings phenomenon", which has always existed within Fatah but was often suppressed thanks to the charismatic character of Arafat, there is a serious contention within the movement over the moribund peace process with Israel. Officially, Fatah is still advocating the two-state solution whereby a viable Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
However, the intensive building by Israel of Jewish colonies all over the West Bank, and especially the heightened pace of Judaisation in East Jerusalem, is pushing many in Fatah away from the two-state solution.
This issue, namely the failure of the political process with Israel, is likely to militate against the Abbas leadership if Fatah members are allowed to freely elect a new leadership. This is also the reason why Abbas is reportedly trying hard to impose his supporters on the conference and exclude as much as possible those who are likely to vote against him.
More to the point, a failure of the Abbas camp at the conference would have larger ramifications since it would mean a vote of no confidence in the peace process with which Abbas had linked his entire political career.
At the very least, Abbas's opponents would insist that the peace process be steered in such a way that would be compatible with Palestinian national constants, including full Israeli withdrawal from 100 per cent of the occupied territories, and repatriation of Palestinian refugees to their original homes and towns from which they were expelled when Israel was created in 1948.
Hence, it is expected that "all necessary efforts be made" to ensure that opponents of the peace process won't take over Fatah. But undemocratic manipulation before and during the conference would only perpetuate disunity within Fatah and might also lead to a real implosion within the movement.
An additional important point of contention facing Fatah is the widespread disillusionment in the movement with the Western-backed government of Salam Fayyad. This government, which only has the legitimacy of the status quo, has been harshly criticised by young Fatah members as serving the "American-Israeli agenda" as well as the interests of "the mercenaries and merchants of the peace process" (i.e. Abbas loyalists).
On numerous occasions, Fatah leaders demanded that Abbas sack Fayyad and form a government composed of Fatah members and independents. They argued that Fatah was being seriously sidelined by the Fayyad government and that all the "flaws and defects" of the government were being blamed on Fatah, which eventually would contribute to weakening their movement while strengthening Hamas.
Abbas denounced the charges as "false" and "libellous", arguing that the continued existence of the Fayyad government ensured that the accusers and tens of thousands of other civil servants would continue to receive salaries at the end of the month. While this rationale serves to silence some critics, it is obvious that the "alliance" between Fayyad and Abbas also serves to weaken Fatah in the eyes of many Palestinians.
According to recent Palestinian opinion polls, Abbas is steadily losing popularity in favour of Hamas and especially imprisoned veteran Fatah leader Marwan Al-Barghouti. The latter stands out today as the most popular Palestinian leader. Many Palestinians hope that the release of Al-Barghouti by Israel, probably in the context of a prisoner swap deal with Hamas, would seriously strengthen the "nationalist camp" within Fatah against the "pragmatic camp" led by Abbas.
This may explain the fact that the Palestinian Authority leadership did not make any effort to pressure former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to free Al-Barghouti. Indeed, it was reported that Abbas himself demanded that Al-Barghouti's name be taken off any list of Palestinians to be released.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, the Palestinian Authority denies "all innuendoes and insinuations" in this regard.