PARTICIPANTS CLAP and cheer before a speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the Fatah Congress in Ramallah.
(photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Delegates to Fatah’s Seventh Congress voted Saturday to elect a new central committee for the movement that spearheaded Palestinian nationalism and nominally rules the West Bank.
Perhaps more important than the actual results of the polling, which were yet to be announced, is that by conducting the election, the congress is formalizing a split in Fatah between the majority that backs President Mahmoud Abbas and a significant minority of backers of Muhammad Dahlan, the former Gaza security chief and one-time favorite of Israel’s defense establishment who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
Dahlan was expelled from Fatah in 2011, but has managed through a combination of political savvy and largesse using UAE money to build up a considerable support base in Gaza and more recently in refugee camps in the West Bank.
In the run-up to the Fatah conference, Abbas rebuffed suggestions by the Arab Quartet (UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) that he allow Dahlan back into the Fatah fold. Moreover, the weeks preceding the conference were marked by expulsion or suspension of Dahlan supporters, who were branded as “delinquents” from the movement. Hundreds of Dahlan backers, many of whom had participated in the previous Fatah conference in 2009, were excluded from participating as delegates in the current meeting.
On the eve of the conference, Dahlan backers made clear that they considered it to be an illegitimate gathering and that they would not recognize any of its decisions, including the election of the new central committee. But Abbas went ahead with a congress that in effect purges Fatah of Dahlan’s followers.
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“I think we are entering a new era for Fatah,” says Naji Shurrab, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “The split is a reality now.”
“Each will say that it is the legitimate one and the other is illegitimate. Fatah is headed to more and more confrontation and fragmentation,” he said. “This will reduce its strength and standing in the eyes of Palestinians and Hamas will win from this situation.”
Abbas made no mention of Dahlan during his two-and-a-half-hour speech to the congress on Wednesday. But his backers believe they have scored a success by the very holding of the conference and by the delegates’ renewing support for Abbas’s leadership. And if some new faces emerge from the central committee balloting they will be able to point to an injection of fresh blood into the system.
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, yesterday said the conference marked a “victory of the Fatah movement over the conspiracy,” meaning Dahlan and perhaps also his Arab backers. But victory celebrations may be premature. The exclusion of Dahlanists is fueling bitterness in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. In Amari refugee camp, just a few kilometers away from where the Fatah congress convened, many residents prefer Dahlan and feel their voices are being squelched by Abbas. These include people with credibility in Palestinian society for having fought Israel.
“Dahlan has a full picture of the suffering of the Palestinian people,” said Samer Hamad, who spent 2005-2008 in an Israeli prison for shooting at soldiers. “He considers the opinion and the needs of the people. He won’t listen to the dictates of the US and Israel. He lived in a camp, he lived the life of people in camps and he knows their suffering.
“Of course people are angry, those with a political background are angry,” said Hamad about the exclusion of Dahlan supporters. Jihad Tomaleh, a Palestinian legislator and Dahlan backer who is the most popular leader in Amari, said: “Excluding large numbers of people from the conference reflects a dangerous mentality endangering the future of the movement and causing its fragmentation.”
Dahlan must now decide whether to focus on building up his patronage network for a while or whether to call a counter-conference that would ratchet up his challenge to Abbas.
Much will depend on the attitude of the Arab Quartet. If Abbas is able to convince the Arab countries that his leadership has been reinvigorated by the conference and that Dahlan has been marginalized, they may be less willing to back Dahlan. If not, Dahlan’s challenge will resonate further.
Meanwhile, critics of Abbas say the real loser of the conference is the Fatah movement itself. “It will never go back to the previous period,” wrote Fayez Abu Shamaleh in the London-based Rai al-Youm website. “It will not reunite its members, who are dissipating, with unity gone. Its vision is split.”