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MIDEAST: Future of Fatah in Doubt

Analysis by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH, Jul 2 2009 (IPS) - The future of Palestinian unity talks is far more complex than the bitter rivalry, bloodshed and division which represent the yawning chasm separating Palestine’s two main political factions, Hamas and Fatah.

There are serious issues within Fatah that need to be resolved. After two decades of power struggles and acrimony within the organisation, Fatah’s Revolutionary Council has agreed to hold its sixth general conference Aug. 4 in Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank. Fatah, founded in 1964, is affiliated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank.

The conference, due to be attended by over 1,500 members, is significant in that it is the first to be held on Palestinian territory. Hitherto, Israel banned leaders from returning to the Palestinian territories. The formerly Tunisia- based Palestinian leadership-in-exile held its last conference in Tunis in 1989 following its expulsion from Lebanon.

Of further relevance is the fact that party members have been able to agree who will attend and where the conference will be held. Infighting and disagreement meant Fatah’s factions took 20 years to agree a date and place.

The conference will be an indicator whether the fragmented Fatah is a spent political force and a mere footnote in the history of the Palestinian national liberation struggle. The conference will also lay the groundwork for unity talks with arch-rival Hamas and peace talks with Israel.

Internal Palestinian upheaval has often been reduced to a West Bank PA vs Gaza Strip Hamas political and military struggle. The reality on the ground, however, is not as black. Within both organisations there are power struggles, differing agendas, and contradictory ideologies.

At present Fatah and the PA command little respect either in the West Bank or in Gaza due to continuing accusations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism. The popularity of Hamas, renowned for being austere and more honest, has surged since the Islamic group won free and fair elections in January 2006.

Fatah is fragmented along several lines. Bickering between the ‘old guard’ and the ‘younger guard’ remains one of several contentious points.

The older guard, many of them over 65, comprises founding members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Among them, the late Yasser Arafat was one of the main architects of the PLO. Fatah is the largest faction of the PLO; Hamas is not part of the group.

The younger guard was formed by young Palestinian men from the Palestinian territories who cut their political teeth during the first Palestinian Intifadah, or uprising, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This membership was joined by Palestinian activists during the second Intifadah which broke out in October 2000, following former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to Islam’s third holiest shrine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, despite warnings from Israel’s security services.

Both uprisings came without any direction from the PLO leadership, catching it by surprise.

Following the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO, some of the old guard returned to the Palestinian territories, and kept up a hedonistic lifestyle at the expense of a Palestinian society wracked by poverty.

This alienated the younger guard who were also angered at the older guard’s refusal to share power with them or open up Fatah’s leadership to new blood.

The corruption within Fatah was one of the reasons behind Hamas’s sweeping 2006 victory. Many Fatah supporters, including a number of Christian Palestinians, voted for Hamas not because they supported its ideology but in protest against the PLO’s endemic nepotism.

The PA is staffed with native West Bankers, some of whom are accused of putting their personal prestige, power and business interests above national liberation.

But the divisions in Fatah go beyond generational and accountability issues. Fragmentation has come around patronage, shared history, geography and foreign policy.

Some members support the international peace process, while others call for a return to armed resistance. Some Fatah members want the PA, which was formed after Oslo, to be dismantled; others don’t.

Many Palestinians are disillusioned with a lack of democracy and human rights in the West Bank under Abbas’s leadership. This is exacerbated by disappointment with a peace process which to many appears to be going nowhere.

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