BETHLEHEM, West Bank, (AP) – The Palestinians’ Fatah movement came together Tuesday for its first convention in 20 years, trying to rise from division and defeat with a pragmatic political program and new leaders in what its supporters hope will be the final push toward Palestinian statehood.
Fatah’s leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, expects the three-day convention to boost his standing and strengthen his hand in dealing with his Hamas rivals and with Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Fatah ’65 is the launch of revolution,” read a banner in the conference hall, referring the year the movement was founded by the late Yasser Arafat. “Fatah of 2009 is the launch of independence.”
Yet the gathering opened in disarray, with most Gaza delegates unable to attend because of an increasingly acrimonious standoff between Abbas and Hamas. The Islamic militants, who wrested control of Gaza from Abbas in 2007, prevented Fatah delegates from leaving the territory for the conference.
Fatah’s internal wrangling, including a bitter generational conflict, seem just as corrosive. Only about one-fourth of the more than 2,200 delegates were elected by the rank-and-file. The rest were picked by Abbas and a small committee, in what could turn out to be an obstacle to sweeping leadership change.
Abbas’ job as party leader is not up for a vote. Candidates are competing for two leadership committees, one with 18 seats and the second with 120.
Ahmed Qureia, a senior Fatah official and the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, said Fatah must emerge from the conference with a show of unity and a clear path toward independence.
“It’s very important to go out of this conference and show the people how you will manage the struggle with Israel, the interior situation (with Hamas) and also, how to manage the (peace) negotiations,” he said in an interview.
Abbas is to open the conference Tuesday with a speech describing Fatah’s transformation from a guerrilla group to champion of a peace deal with Israel.
Fatah’s popularity has dwindled in recent years, largely because of the failure of peace talks, but compounded by the stain of corruption. In 2006, Fatah was defeated by Hamas in parliamentary elections.
The last conference was held in 1989, in Tunisian exile, under Arafat’s leadership. The political program at the time still called for “armed struggle” against Israel.
A banner in the conference call showed a boy in a military uniform and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, with the slogan, “Resistance is a legitimate right of our people.”
However, the political program presented this week for convention approval marginalizes that idea, and instead emphasizes negotiations and civil disobedience as the path to statehood.
It also sets conditions for a resumption of peace talks with Israel, including a complete settlement freeze. Abbas has said he will not go back to negotiations without such a freeze, but enshrining the position in the Fatah program would protect him against possible pressure. For now, the Obama administration is also pushing for a settlement freeze.
The proposed program is a thorough rewrite of the 1989 program, reflecting the dramatic events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since then, including the establishment of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, two Palestinian uprisings against Israel and several rounds of peace talks.
The international community and Israel will watch the convention closely, particularly Fatah’s continued commitment to negotiations. Israeli officials have so far declined to comment on it.