1978 bus attack gunman surprised at entry permit; top official calls for "strategic alliance" with Iran.
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Israel has permitted scores of Fatah operatives who participated in armed attacks against Israeli civilians to enter the West Bank to attend the faction's sixth general assembly, which is expected to convene in Bethlehem on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Hatem Abdel Kader, a top Fatah official, called on Sunday for a "strategic alliance" between his faction and Iran. He said the upcoming conference should revise Fatah's relations with the Arab and Islamic countries in light of the latest developments in the region. He added that Iran was a regional power that had enough resources to support Fatah and the Palestinians.
Hundreds of Fatah delegates arrived in Bethlehem over the past few days from various Arab countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
The delegates were allowed into the West Bank following a request by the Fatah leadership in Ramallah.
Many of the Fatah members who are already in Bethlehem became famous thanks to their involvement in armed attacks against Israel.
One of them is Khaled Abu Usba, member of the Fatah cell that infiltrated into Israel in 1978 and hijacked a bus outside Tel Aviv. Thirty-six passengers were killed in the attack, one of the worst in Israel's history.
The cell was headed by a young Palestinian woman named Dalal al-Mughbrabi, who was killed when IDF soldiers stormed the bus to release the hostages.
Abu Usba was one of two cell members who were caught alive. The remaining 11 Fatah gunmen were killed during the IDF raid.
He was sentenced to 12 life terms, but was released seven years later in a prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinian group Popular Front-General Command, headed by Ahmed Jibril.
Abu Usba, who visited the offices of the Bethlehem-based Ma'an news agency, said he was surprised that Israel had permitted him to enter the West Bank.
"I've waited for 30 years to return to Palestine," he said. "And now that I'm here I have no intention to leave. I will wait until I obtain residency here and until my wife and children join me."
Another top Fatah operative who arrived from Lebanon is Sultan Abu Ainain, who is often described as the de facto leader of the Palestinians in that country. He too expressed joy and surprise over Israel's decision to allow him into the West Bank despite his past as a "military commander." Abu Ainain said he and many of his colleagues supported the option of armed resistance against Israel as a way of achieving the Palestinians' national rights.
"Do we want Fatah to be a liberation movement?" he asked rhetorically. "If so, then we must translate this into actions on the ground."
The senior Fatah operative expressed "shock" over the settlements and the security fence surrounding Bethlehem. He said the settlements and fence strengthened his conviction that negotiations alone would not restore the Palestinians' rights.
More than 2,000 delegates have been invited to attend the Fatah conference, the first in two decades. The conference is being held under unprecedented security measures.
Some of the delegates who came from Arab countries said they would demand that Fatah leaders be held accountable for the faction's defeat to Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election and its surrender to the Islamic movement a year later in the Gaza Strip.
The delegates are expected to vote for new members of Fatah's two major bodies, the Central Committee [21 seats] and the Revolutionary Council [120 seats]. They will also discuss Fatah's future political and security strategy, as well as the status of peace talks with Israel.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior Fatah official from Ramallah, said that delegates from 70 countries were also scheduled to attend the conference as observers. He expressed regret over Hamas's decision to ban Fatah members in the Gaza Strip from traveling to the West Bank to attend the conference unless the Palestinian Authority released Hamas supporters held in its jails.
Meanwhile, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said Sunday during a meeting of Likud ministers that Fatah's draft "political plan," leaked to several Arab newspapers over the weekend, "is a declaration of war on the state of Israel."
"The refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, the demand for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines and for the full right of return for Palestinian refugees - this means wiping Israel out of existence," he said.
The document reportedly also reiterates Fatah's commitment to the "armed struggle" against Israel as one of the methods of achieving an independent Palestinian state. It calls for Palestinians to unilaterally declare such a state if peace talks fail.
"We must adopt a clear stance in the face of these positions," Katz said.
var cont = `Stay Informed
As the war against Hamas unfolds, our unwavering newsroom remains committed to covering Israel's most profound crisis.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real-time news and in-depth analysis from our top reporters.