The Palestinian movement Fatah is convening its first Congress in two decades amid resounding calls for repairing its litany of errors and changing its ailing leadership to restore its once strong standing among Palestinians.
"This is a conference for change," Ziyad Abu Ayn, a prominent Fatah leader in the West Bank, told The Independent on Tuesday, August 4.
More than 2,000 delegates are meeting in the West Bank city of Bethlehem for the first Fatah congress in two decades and its sixth since being founded by iconic Yasser Arafat in the late 1950s.
For many, the three-day meeting is an opportunity to renew the political program and revitalize the movement, largely tainted by corruption and paralyzed by internal rifts.
Inaugurating the congress earlier Tuesday, President Mahmoud Abbas, also Fatah leader, urged his movement to seek "a new start" and admit past errors.
"[Errors include] the impasse in the peace process, some of our attitudes which the public rejects, our weak performance, our losing touch with the pulse of the street, and our lack of discipline."
He said Fatah must present a new and clear vision of a future Palestinian state to regain its standing among the people.
The group has exercised undivided power among Palestinians for decades, leading both Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority.
But the downturn began with the death of iconic Arafat in 2004.
Two years later, Fatah was trounced the parliamentary elections which saw rival Hamas sweep to power.
Another severe blow came after tension with Hamas turned bloody in June 2007 with the rival group seizing control of the Gaza Strip and limiting Fatah’s power base to the occupied West Bank.
The Bethlehem meeting will be electing a new central committee and ruling council.
The younger generation that grew up fighting the Israeli occupation hopes to have more say.
"It is time for a change of generations," stressed Abu Ayn, a close associate of Marwan Barghouthi, Fatah West Bank leader who is held in Israel.
"Eighty percent of the leadership must be changed because they failed at everything."
According to its by-laws, Fatah should hold a congress every five years but its leadership kept postponing such meetings, citing changing circumstances such as interim peace deals with Israel.
Even after Arafat, the old guards resisted for years organizing the Congress, fearing they would lose seats and power to younger leaders.
But many are not optimistic, especially with many of the old faces seeking posts and promotions.
Nabil Amr, an Abbas ally who was trounced by a Hamas rival in the 2006 parliamentary polls, is trying to move up from the revolutionary council to the central committee.
Mohammed Dahlan, whose security forces were routed by Hamas fighters in Gaza, also has his sights on the top body.
Rawhi Fattouh, a former parliament speaker who caused embarrassment last year when Israeli border inspectors found 3,000 contraband mobile phones in his car, is another candidate.
Fatah MP Hussam Khader is pessimistic that with these names vying for top posts, there is little hope that change will actually materialize.
"We are used to being slaves, not to acting like free people," Khader told The Independent.
"Many of the slaves among Fatah will re-elect the failed leadership."
Musa Fawaz, a Fatah delegate from Lebanon, warns that the election of such discredited figures would deal a fatal blow to the movement.
"Failure to transform Fatah with a new, popular, non-corrupt leadership will mean its destruction."
(IslamOnline.net and newspapers)