Where is Fatah Headed after Its Seventh Congress?

(Photo: Image by Luis Vazquez, Gulf News)

By Ramzy Baroud

After years of holding the Palestinian struggle hostage to their factional-feud, the current enemy of Palestinian unity today is not just the Fatah-Hamas dispute. According to Mouin Rabbani, writing in Al Jazeera, another pressing problem is the power struggle within Fatah itself.

It is unfortunate that the Palestinian leadership often substitutes its failure to address one problem by inviting another. When it comes to leadership, historically, the Palestinian people have always been ill-fated.

Part of the reason is that Palestine was always an Arab question as much as it was a Palestinian question. While such solidarity had its own perks, it also meant Arab states have often tried to impose their own political agendas on Palestinians.

In turn, many Palestinian leaders proved to be duly corruptible, resulting in factions and organisations striving to win Arab (and now western) support, rather than busy themselves with the question of liberation.

Schisms within schisms is one way to describe the Palestinian body politic of today.

While Hamas and other Palestinian groups bear a large share of responsibility for the crisis, Fatah — the oldest Palestinian faction — which dominates the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and is responsible for the Oslo Accords — carries greater responsibility.

Worse, the Fatah leadership is demonstrating its inability to change course, despite the pressing need for new thinking, new blood and a new approach to the Palestinian struggle.

The seventh Fatah congress held in Ramallah on November 29 was most expressive of the sad state of Fatah, a movement that is often credited for igniting the modern Palestinian revolt.

The delegates were hand-picked from Mahmoud Abbas’ political camp. Abbas, 81, was immediately re-elected to lead Fatah, and is now, once more, leader of the group, of the PNA and of the PLO.

It was a six-day fest of continuous applause and display of political allegiances. By the end, no new faces were introduced. Results of the Fatah Central Committee (FCC) vote on the last day of the conference were hardly surprising as 16 of the 18 seats up for elections were claimed by supporters of Abbas. Abbas will also choose the remaining three seats himself.

Seventeen of those voted in were men, all Muslims, all over 50 years of age.

“Apathy seems widespread among educated Palestinians in their 20s and 30s,” wrote Karin Laub for the Associated Press. “Many have given up on trying to break into what they see a closed political system, especially at a time when there’s no realistic path to ending Israel’s half-century-old occupation.”

But if such a ‘realistic path’ does in fact exist, it was hardly a subject of discussion in the Fatah congress, which divided its time between the empty rhetoric of Oslo, the peace process and the two-state solution on the one hand, and ensuring the dominance of Abbas’ loyalists on the other.

While past conferences, notably the congress of 2009, were designed to ensure that Fatah is fashioned in such a way to meet the expectations of its dominant members, this is the first time were consensus building was never intended.

“In years past, Fatah’s general conference served to negotiate consensus between the movement’s various factions and power centres on issues such as its strategic orientation, political program and representation on its decision-making bodies,” wrote Rabbani.

That was a style tailored so cleverly by the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat — he successfully managed to keep his friends close and enemies even closer.

Abbas lacks such a quality. Historically, Abbas has been the least popular among Fatah leaders — the likes of Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad, and Arafat himself.

Yet, despite his unpopularity, Abbas has remained in one top position or another. The power struggle between him and Arafat which culminated in 2003, until Arafat’s death in November 2004, hardly helped Abbas’ insipid reputation among Palestinians.

Nor is the ageing leader interested in revolutionizing his stagnant movement. Indeed, Abbas’s long-drawn-out speech of nearly three hours on November 30th brought nothing new, rehashed slogans and subtle messages to the US and Israel that his ‘revolution’ shall remain subdued and non-violent.

Considering this critical period in Palestine’s history, Abbas’ impractical rhetoric represents the depth of the crisis among Palestine’s political elites.

The numerous rounds of applause that Abbas’ tedious, unimaginative speech received from the nearly 1,400 supporters who attended the conference is a reflection of the deep-seated political tribalism that now controls Fatah.

The sad truth is that, regardless of who wins in the current power struggle, Fatah’s descent is inexorable.

According to a poll conducted in September 2015, the majority of Palestinians — 65 per cent — want Abbas to resign. The same poll indicated that his rival, Mohammad Dahlan wasn’t nearly as popular (only 6 per cent supported him) and Abbas’ allies, Saeb Erekat and former prime minister, Salam Fayyad, received 4 per cent and 3 per cent of the vote respectively.

Indeed, there is a chasm between Palestinians and those who claim to represent them, and that rift is growing tremendously.

The Fatah political theater in the West Bank seemed far removed from this reality. After Abbas — who was only elected to lead the PA once in 2005 for a period of four years — purged all of his opponents, he sought a new mandate from his supporters.

Predictably, “everyone voted yes,” Mahmoud Abu Al Hija, a spokesman for Fatah, told reporters in reference to the anonymous vote to re-elect Abbas.

When ‘everyone’ in Fatah’s top political circle votes for Abbas, while the majority of Palestinians reject him, this leads one to conclude that Fatah is neither a fair representation of the Palestinian people, nor is it remotely close to the pulse on Palestinian streets.

Even if one is to ignore the ‘yes-men’ of Fatah, one cannot ignore the fact that the current fight among the Palestinian elites is almost entirely detached from the fight against Israel.

Palestinians are victims of daily violence: illegal Jewish colonies are occupying Palestinian hills and are ever expanding, Israeli soldiers roam occupied Palestinian land, and Abbas, himself, is not allowed free movement without prior ‘security coordination’ with the Israeli army.

Moreover, Palestinians are divided among factions, regions and clans; political favoritism, financial corruption and straight-out treason are eating the Palestinian body politic like an incurable cancer. Talk of ‘unity’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘state building’ are just that — words — while Palestinians suffer their bitter existence under the boots of soldiers, behind checkpoints, and under the quiet — but maddening — humming of military drones.

Still, the Fatah elites applauded Abbas nearly 300 times during his three hour speech. What were they applauding, exactly? What has been achieved? What vision did he put forth to end the Israeli occupation?

Much Palestinian land has been lost between Fatah’s sixth congress in 2009 and seventh congress. That is not an achievement but a cause for alarm.

The sad truth is no self-respecting Palestinian should be applauding empty rhetoric. Instead, the respected Fatah members should urgently rethink this destructive course altogether.

– Dr Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out