By George S. Hishmeh
If one chooses to be charitable, the holding of the Congress of the most significant Palestinian nationalist movement in Israeli-besieged Palestine for the first time since its founding in the early sixties could be considered a historic achievement. If nothing else, it allowed more than 2,000 members of the Palestinian Liberation Movement, or Fatah, to assemble in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and begin the process of rejuvenating what has been described as ‘a bloated gerontocracy’ that has not met for 20 years.
It certainly underlined the Palestinians’ yearning to return to their usurped homeland despite the fact that many coming from neighbouring Arab countries such as Syria and Lebanon had to secure clearance from the Israeli authorities, in itself an insulting and degrading step.
Over the years, Fatah and its popular founder, the late Yasser Arafat, have led the march to regain Palestine certainly the territories that were occupied in 1967, when Israeli troops managed to drive away armies of neighboring Arab states that were in control of these areas, including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But although Arafat and his close advisers were successful in drawing international attention to the plight of the Palestinians they failed in political organization; corruption and lack of discipline became distinct features of Fatah.
The conference, slated to run for three days, ended up meeting for eight days due to the power struggle within the group. Most of the deliberations were not open to the public, including the two-hour statement of Arafat’s lackluster successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who assumed the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority in 2004 when Arafat passed away. The well-meaning new leader has managed to win the support of various Western leaders because of his declared intention to reach a negotiated settlement with the Israelis. But these Western leaders have failed to energetically support a fair settlement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, despite the fact that the first peace accord between the two feuding parties was signed in 1993 in Oslo, Norway.
The conference did result in significant change that could herald a new beginning for the Palestinians. For example, a leading Fatah leader who participated in past and recent negotiations and served as prime minister, Ahmad Qurei, failed to get elected to Fatah’s powerful 23-member Central Committee.
Moreover, only four members of the committee were re-elected. Twelve seats were taken by new, relatively young candidates, including the controversial Mohammad Dahlan and his former security colleague Jubrail Jabbour. But the most startling development was the election of Marwan Barghouti, a popular senior Fatah leader who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.
Abbas, in his capacity as president of the Palestinian National Authority, serves as a member of the committee, and he will have to select four others representing various religious minorities, women’s groups and outlying areas because their nominees did not get the necessary votes.
There was a dark cloud over the meetings in Bethlehem in the wake of allegations that some key Fatah leaders colluded with Israel in plotting the assassination of Arafat, who, it is claimed, died after being poisoned. Abbas and Dahlan, a former security chief in the Palestinian National Authority, were the target of these unsubstantiated charges levelled by Farouk Al Qaddoumi, secretary-general of Fatah’s central committee and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s political department in Tunisia.
Although the charges dominated discussions in Palestinian communities everywhere, there was no apparent disruption at the Bethlehem conference, which was held behind closed doors.
One issue that was discussed at the Congress was the serious split between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that won the last Palestinian general election in 2006 and, a year later, took over control of the Gaza Strip. Attempts by Egypt to resolve the conflict between the two Palestinian parties have so far been unsuccessful. Some saw hope for reconciliation after Hamas allowed Fatah delegates to cast their votes telephonically a factor that, incidentally, delayed the counting of votes.
Whether one sees the emergence of a younger generation of Fatah leaders as a successful facelift for the party or not, the road ahead remains arduous. Bringing order to the Palestinian house should remain an all-important goal for all Palestinians, whether they belong to Fatah or Hamas.
Otherwise, as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned, the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state will not be possible even if all the world were to support this step. This is a point that should not be overlooked since Israelis such as the right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are ready to pounce on any excuse and will claim, as he has done, that the announcements made at the Congress “bury any chance” of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.