The Fatah movement, the key Palestinian guerrilla movement within the Palestine Liberation Organization, has moved one step closer to becoming a political party.
With the holding of its sixth congress - the first in occupied territories - it is hard to continue pretending to be a liberation movement. Officially, however, more than 2,000 delegates representing former Fatah fedayeen [guerrillas] and intifada activists voted to continue the 'resistance' for the liberation of Palestine. Resistance was explained in a much wider perspective than the military struggle.
Mahmoud Abbas, who was unanimously elected as party leader and commander-in-chief, made it clear that while all options were still on the table, our choice for ending the occupation was through negotiations.
And if anyone (such as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak) took the rhetoric on resistance seriously, congress spokesman Nabil Amr officially assured all concerned that Fatah was committed to peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
SIGNS OF the move to a political party were starkly evident. Gone were the khaki suits and militaristic paraphernalia; men in suits roamed the conference and proper ID badges were issued to all delegates. Backroom decisions and top-down guidance were replaced with a democratic free-for-all that saw many of Fatah's historic leaders fall to the wayside, making room for younger, locally popular leaders. Naturally the 20-year hiatus since the last congress created a huge gap that was quickly filled with street credentials rather than military ones.
The ballot rather than the bullet process produced the failures of some of Fatah's famous names, such as Ahmed Qurei and Intisar Wazir, the widow of Abu Jihad, the movement's founder along with Yasser Arafat and Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad).
Holding the congress in Palestine ended the role of many of the anti-Oslo leaders such as Mahmoud Jihad and Farouk Kaddoumi. Sidelining Kaddoumi, whose accusation on the eve of the congress that Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan had helped Israel poison Arafat, will end the role of many Fatah leaders who were aligned with some of the hard-line Arab countries such as Syria and Libya. Abbas, however, showed magnanimity towards Kaddoumi by calling on him to return to the movement's fold, despite all that happened in the past.
Fatah guerrilla leaders who have dominated the movement since its establishment were replaced by intifada activists. Most of the newly-elected central committee members represent the leadership of the 1987 uprising in the occupied territories. In his speech, Abbas referred to these intifada leaders, telling the congress that the first intifada wrote the guidelines that have become the movement's political platform since then.
Leaders like imprisoned Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, former Preventative Security chief Jibril Rajoub and Gaza's Dahlan are now in the driver's seat of the Fatah movement.
Dahlan, who many held personally responsible for the loss of Gaza to Hamas, gave a strong speech accusing the previous Fatah leadership of having lost Gaza long before it actually fell in June 2007. He detailed how the former Fatah leadership repeatedly ignored his warnings and his pleas to the central committee members to come to Gaza and see the situation for themselves.
Barghouti's long sentence in an Israeli jail complicates matters on the one hand but can be an opportunity for a breakthrough on the other. Everyone knows that any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will require difficult compromises. When it comes to making concessions, a strong leader with nationalistic credentials will have a better chance at selling compromises to his people than a weak leader.
In Palestinian eyes, a prison term on a nationalistic background is a badge of honor. While Mahmoud Abbas has won a unanimous vote for himself and his moderate policies, his nationalistic credentials don't match those of someone like the imprisoned Barghouti or Rajoub and Dahlan, who spent many years in Israeli jails. Barghouti's release, if executed properly, can enable him to deliver such a historic compromise.
THE FATAH congress also dealt a blow to the abuse and corruption that has plagued the movement in recent years, especially since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Speaker after speaker insisted that the movement became weak once its leaders were sucked into government positions, with the associated temptations.
A resolve to distance the movement from the Palestinian Authority was the overriding sentiment in the conference. This sentiment was translated in the voting out of those who represented this duplicity, perhaps the chief among them former prime minister and leading negotiator Ahmed Qurei.
The Fatah movement has a way to go before it becomes a full-fledged political party. The overwhelming argument of delegates was that the movement must keep the option open to move back to a secret underground movement if negotiations for statehood fail, while readying to become a political party should a Palestinian state be born. For the time being, the conclusion of the sixth congress reflects an inclination toward a party rather than an underground resistance movement.
And that is a step forward.
The writer is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is general manager of Community Media Network Radio Al Balad.