Palestinian Affairs: Showdown in Bethlehem

The election last week may be a Pyrrhic victory for Abbas.

abbas speaks 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
abbas speaks 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
What was surprising about the results of the election for Fatah's central committee was not the claim that a younger generation of "reformists" and "clean" operatives defeated veteran leaders of the faction. Rather, it was the identity of the newly-elected members that left many delegates attending the Sixth General Assembly of Fatah in Bethlehem wondering whether the vote had been conducted in an honest manner. Many political analysts who rushed to declare the Fatah conference a major achievement and an example of Palestinian-style democracy were surprised to hear top officials of the faction accusing their leadership of forgery. The allegations and demands for an inquiry came from many directions: from the Gaza Strip, from women (not a single woman was elected), from young guard and old guard representatives, from Fatah members in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and even from some former top allies of Fatah head and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. One of these close allies is Fatah heavyweight Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), who has openly challenged the results, accusing Abbas and his entourage of hijacking the vote. "What happened in Iran is nothing compared to what happened at the Fatah election," Qurei remarked, and, in an implicit reference to Abbas, Israel and the US, added: "They wanted rubber stamps in Fatah and they got them." Qurei, who failed to be reelected as member of the central committee, said he found it hard to believe that all of those who were on Abbas's preferred list of candidates had won. Qurei, and a large group of Fatah operatives, found it hard to believe that it was by coincidence that three former security commanders, Muhammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Tawfik Tirawi, were elected members of the committee. Critics claimed that the three were being "rewarded" for their security cooperation with Israel, which put pressure on Abbas to make sure they were elected to the highest decision-making body in Fatah. The post-election crisis deepened as all 11 members of Fatah's higher committee in the Gaza Strip submitted their resignations to Abbas in protest against "fraud" and "deception" during the voting process. Dozens of Fatah members from the Gaza Strip complained that they were never given the opportunity to participate in the election, although many others were permitted to vote by phone or e-mail. In the end, the Gaza Strip got only two representatives in the central committee: Dahlan and Nabil Sha'ath. Ahmed Nasr, a senior Fatah operative, said he and his friends had no doubt that the vote was neither fair nor honest. He claimed the results did not reflect the general mood in Fatah, whose members were hoping for a new generation of leaders who were not "corrupt." Ahmed Hamad, another senior Fatah official from the Gaza Strip, said that at least 90 delegates were barred from casting their ballots. "No one called these delegates from Bethlehem, and as such they were not able to vote," he said. "On the other hand, some delegates voted more than once by phone. These elections were not credible or transparent." DURING THE Fatah congress in Bethlehem, officials like Dahlan, Rajoub and Tirawi came under sharp criticism from many of their colleagues who accused them of being part of the corrupt regimes of Yasser Arafat and his successor, Abbas. Some delegates even went as far as to demand that the trio be put on trial for their "crimes" against the Palestinians when they were in office. All three were responsible for the establishment of security forces that imposed a reign of terror and intimidation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the signing of the Oslo Accords 16 years ago. To describe the three men as "reformists" is like praising the rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as feminists, liberals and champions of gays and lesbians, these critics claim. Another "youth" who is being hailed as one of Fatah's promising new faces is Sultan Abu al-Aynain, the faction's ruthless security commander in Lebanon. Some Fatah delegates who attended the convention demanded that Abu al-Aynain be put on trial for allegedly murdering some of his political rivals in Lebanon over the past few years. This new-old leader who, according to some media outlets is expected to lead Fatah toward pragmatism and moderation, was recently accused of standing behind the assassination of Kamal Midhat, a senior Fatah intelligence officer in Lebanon. Abu al-Aynain has denied the charges. To back up their accusations that the vote had been hijacked by Abbas and his colleagues, critics pointed to the fact that the final results had been delayed so that changes could be introduced. Preliminary results had shown that one of Abbas's most trusted aides, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, had not been reelected as a member of the central committee. But 24 hours after the vote, Abdel Rahim's name was suddenly added to the list of winners. The chairman of the committee that supervised the election, Ahmed Sayyad, is said to have submitted his resignation in protest against the alleged tampered results. A Fatah delegate said that Sayyad later rescinded his decision after coming under immense pressure and threats from Abbas and other senior officials. The results of the vote are indeed an impressive victory for Abbas, because in the end all of his handpicked loyalists and allies were elected. The fact that Abbas succeeded in convening the conference after 20 years can also be regarded as an achievement. But while Abbas and his camp may have tightened their grip on Fatah, it's premature to talk about a new era of stability and unity in the ruling faction. On Thursday, as allegations of fraud and forgery grew, there were signs that Fatah may be headed toward a split. Some Fatah representatives are now talking about the possibility of forming a breakaway group called Fatah - The Awakening (Fath al-Sahwa). Others said that the reaction of the Fatah representatives in the Gaza Strip also indicated that there's a high probability that they would try to establish their own Fatah party.