Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 July - 5 August 2009
Issue No. 958
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Eye for an eye

Khaled Amayreh takes a hard look at Fatah's long-awaited, much-heralded and highly controversial sixth congress convening in Bethlehem

Palestinian Authority (PA) President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas has decided to hold the conference in the occupied Palestinian territories 4 August despite stiff objections from some key Fatah leaders such as the group's Secretary-General Farouk Qaddumi. However, while logistical and other obstacles hindering the convening of the conference have been largely overcome, conditions for its success remain in doubt.

The conference will be the largest in Fatah's history and is expected to be a watershed event that will determine the shape and political discourse of the largest Palestinian political movement for many years to come. Moreover, the outcome of the conference will have a direct impact on the deadlocked political process with Israel.

The conference will see the election of a new leadership of Fatah, which means that some of the movement's current faces, including high-ranking leaders, will either be re-elected or voted down. New faces will likely be brought to the fore, which could have important ramifications on the peace process, the rift with Hamas and Fatah's own internal troubles.

Notwithstanding, several serious question marks still hover over the venue of the conference. For example, will Hamas allow as many as 400 Fatah leaders from the Gaza Strip to leave for Bethlehem? And if Hamas does allow them to leave, will Israel grant them entry into the West Bank?

The organisers of the conference received bad news from Gaza this week. Hamas leader, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, said during a Friday sermon that the Islamic authorities in Gaza would allow Fatah delegates to leave only if the Fatah-dominated PA government in Ramallah agreed to release all Hamas- affiliated political detainees and to supply Gaza with passports, long denied to Gazans as a reprisal for the violent ousting by Hamas of Fatah militias in the summer of 2007. "A good deed for a good deed, and a bad deed for a bad deed," said Al-Zahhar, addressing thousands of worshipers at a Mosque in central Gaza.

The 400 Fatah delegates from Gaza constitute an important numerical weight whose presence or absence will leave a strong impact on the deliberations and outcome of the conference.

Moreover, it is widely presumed that many of these delegates are loyal to the Abbas camp. Hence, it is probably safe to assume that Abbas and his allies, in particular, former Gaza strongman Mohamed Dahlan, stand to lose in case Hamas continues to refuse to allow the Fatah delegates to leave.

In light of this, the Fatah leadership has been pleading with Egypt to pressure Hamas to allow Fatah delegates to leave. However, it is unlikely that Hamas will make free concessions to Fatah, especially with as many as 900 Hamas supporters still languishing in PA jails. Some of the detainees are reportedly being subjected to severe physical and psychological torture as testified by a Qaliqilya journalist who was freed from PA custody on 26 July, having spent five months in jail on charges of affiliation with Hamas.

Earlier this week, a former Hamas detainee, who had spent several months in PA jails in Hebron, was pronounced "clinically dead" at the King Hussein Medical Centre in Amman. Kamal Tiema, 45, was released from PA custody nearly two months ago after suffering a massive stroke purportedly as a result of torture.

Some Fatah officials have been defiant, warning Hamas that its "intransigence" would have serious consequences on the Hamas-Fatah dialogue. However, others questioned the wisdom of holding the sixth congress in the absence of Gaza Fatah delegates.

In addition to the Hamas factor, the success of the conference also depends on the arrival in the West Bank and participation in the conference of hundreds of Fatah delegates from the Diaspora.

So far, only one prominent Fatah leader has arrived in the West Bank for the conference. He is Abu Maher Ghneim who is often touted as a possible nominee for succeeding Mahmoud Abbas.

Thirty other delegates were preparing to leave Amman for the West Bank in the coming few days. However, it is still uncertain if Israel will allow all of them to enter the West Bank. But dozens, or even a few hundred other delegates are expected to boycott the conference or be denied entry to the West Bank by Israel.

Then there is the Qaddumi factor, which is expected to loom large during the conference. Earlier this month, he dropped a bombshell during an impromptu press conference in Amman, saying he was in possession of an authentic document showing that Abbas and Dahlan were involved in an Israeli plot to poison the late former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Abbas and Dahlan scoffed at the revelations, accusing Qaddumi of seeking to abort the upcoming Bethlehem conference. However, the effects and aftereffects of Qaddumi's bombshell refuse to evaporate as a number of Fatah leaders are demanding that "a serious investigation" into Qaddumi's allegations be carried out by a "neutral and credible body". Such an investigation per se would amount to a vote of no-confidence in Abbas who is unlikely to allow it to materialise.

According to reliable Palestinian sources, Qaddumi has voiced his willingness to mend bridges with Abbas if the PA leader agrees to sack Dahlan, dissolve the American-backed government of Salam Fayyad and halt the inquisition-like campaign against Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank.

Such conditions are unlikely to be accepted by Abbas since doing so would seriously harm PA relations with the United States whose vital support for Abbas is directly linked with his anti-Hamas stance.

The most contentious issue in the Bethlehem conference is expected to be the moribund peace process with Israel. Fatah leaders are already castigating the PA leadership for being duped for too long by Israeli deception and prevarication while Israel devours more Palestinian land and builds more Jewish settlements on occupied territories.

Palestinian observers predict that it will be difficult for Abbas to sell the delegates, many of them veteran prisoners in Israel jails, a "moderate vision" for peace, especially in light of the aggressive extremism and sullen hostility displayed by the current Israeli government.

Observers also expect to reassert the erstwhile Palestinian national constants: a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and a just resolution of the refugees' plight in accordance to UN Resolution 149.

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