Palestinian Affairs: Out with the old

Young Fatah activists have decided to revolt against their historic leadership.

fatah smiling 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
fatah smiling 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
As the three major political parties in Israel - Labor, Likud and Kadima - were busy this week recruiting new faces ahead of next March's general elections, the Palestinian's ruling Fatah party was witnessing what many in Ramallah and Gaza see as a revolt against its veteran leaders. Although the results of the primary elections in Fatah, which saw representatives of the "young guard" take over from many of Yasser Arafat's former allies, hardly surprised Palestinian analysts, the general feeling on the Palestinian street is that the rule of the "Abus" [a reference to many of the veteran Fatah leaders whose nom de guerre begins with Abu] is nearing its end. This power struggle between the two generations intensified after the PLO moved from Tunisia to the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the signing of the Oslo Accords. Young Fatah activists living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have since been accusing the "Tunisians" of monopolizing power and refusing to give grassroots leaders a say in decision-making. But because the young activists did not want a confrontation with Arafat, most were prepared to refrain from airing their grievances in public. Yet every now and then, some of these activists would appear on al-Jazeera and other media outlets to complain that they were being sidelined by the veteran Fatah leaders surrounding Arafat. The complaints were directed especially against the Fatah Central Committee, a key decision-making body that has always been dominated by Arafat's longtime allies, such as Hani al-Hassan, Abbas Zaki and Sakher Habash. What really worried the local activists was the fact that only a handful of them were given senior posts in the Palestinian civil and security administration. The posts of prime minister, ministers and security chiefs until today remain largely in the hands of the old guard. The results of the Fatah primaries in some West Bank areas show that the young activists have finally decided to revolt against their historic leadership. More than 400,000 voters have registered for the elections to choose their candidates for next January's parliamentary vote. Fatah activists in the Ramallah area gave Marwan Barghouti, the de facto leader of the young generation of Fatah, more than half of the votes. Barghouti's victory was perhaps not as stunning as the humiliating defeat of old guard leaders like Sakher Habash, who won only a few hundred votes. Kadoura Fares, another young guard operative and a longtime critic of the veteran Fatah leadership, came in second. In Nablus and Jenin, Fatah militiamen who have been directly involved in the fighting against Israel, scored major victories, leaving most of the old guard candidates in a state of shock. PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who was attending an international conference in Barcelona during the elections, is reported to have been "deeply concerned" by the outcome of the vote. After all, he too belongs to the old generation of Fatah leaders who have long been held responsible for rampant corruption, abuse of power and making too many concessions to Israel. Abbas, according to some of his aides, was so disturbed that at one stage he considered canceling the primaries. Indeed, the vote in the Gaza Strip was suspended on Monday - but the decision came in response to numerous incidents of violence and following allegations of massive irregularities. The violence was initiated by local Fatah activists who discovered that their names had been mysteriously removed from voter lists. Their anger was directed against the veteran Fatah leadership, namely the party's Central Committee, which was accused of trying to steal the vote. Many young Fatah leaders, including Mohammed Dahlan, who is contesting the primary elections, have openly pointed a blaming finger at the committee, saying it was seeking to prevent the emergence of new faces. The infighting in Fatah is likely to have a negative impact on the party's chances of making a strong showing in the January elections, particularly in the wake of Hamas's decision to participate in the vote for the first time. This does not mean that Hamas will win a majority of seats in the new parliament, however. Nor does it mean that Hamas will form the next cabinet. Public opinion polls conducted in recent weeks have given the Islamic movement only 15-20 percent. But some Fatah leaders believe that the ongoing power struggle in their party will certainly increase Hamas's power. Hatem Abdel Kader, a Barghouti ally who won this week's primary elections in the Jerusalem area, said that the crisis in Fatah was a "nice gift to Hamas." Abdel Kader, Dahlan, Barghouti and most of the young Fatah leaders now fear that Abbas will use the crisis as an excuse to appoint his own candidates for the parliamentary elections, just as Arafat used to do. "The era of appointments is over," Dahlan warned this week. "This will be a severe blow to democracy and efforts to reform Fatah." In an attempt to appease the young guard, some veteran Fatah officials have come up with the idea of appointing Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in Israeli jail, as deputy chairman of the PA. It was not clear by Thursday whether Abbas would accept the proposal. Neither was it clear whether Barghouti himself was interested in the new job. What is clear, however, is that the "intifada" against the old guard will pave the way for young and energetic leaders to take control over the PA.