Fatah operatives expressed skepticism over the weekend that their faction's general conference, which is scheduled to convene in Bethlehem on Tuesday, would pave the way for the emergence of a young leadership. The operatives accused veteran "old guard" Fatah leaders of hampering efforts to select new grassroots leaders to the faction's Central Committee, which is considered its most significant institution. Some of the operatives said they decided to drop their candidacy for the committee's 21 seats after realizing that their chances of beating wealthy veteran Fatah leaders were very slim. Hatem Abdel Kader, a senior Fatah official who represents the faction's "young guard," said he and many of his colleagues had determined that it would be impossible to run against veteran officials who have unlimited resources and funding. Instead, he said, most of the younger members were hoping to be elected members of the 120-seat Revolutionary Council, the second most important institution in Fatah. The council, Abdel Kader noted, will play a significant role in monitoring the work of the newly elected Central Committee, which will almost certainly be dominated by old-timers loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "Too many old guard leaders are competing for the 21 seats of the Central Council," Abdel Kader said. "They have the money and resources to defeat their young rivals." Fatah officials said over 500 members were competing for seats on the Revolutionary Council, while another 150 were running for the Central Committee. Altogether, some 2,260 delegates have been invited to attend the three-day conference, which is meeting for the first time in two decades. More than half of the delegates have been appointed by Abbas loyalists, a move that has been sharply criticized by the faction's young guard. On Friday, dozens of Fatah members from the Gaza Strip announced that they would boycott the conference because of the continued "hegemony" of old-guard leaders. Husam Khader, another representative of the younger generation in Fatah, said he did not expect the upcoming conference to bring major changes. "The older leaders will continue to control Fatah even after the conference," he said. "Many Fatah members are already disappointed and it's possible that they would even boycott the sixth conference." Apart from voting for the two key decision-making bodies, the Fatah delegates are also expected to discuss the faction's future political and security strategy, as well as demands for implementing widespread reforms in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. Some delegates have also requested that the issue of Yasser Arafat's death be included in the conference agenda, especially after estranged Fatah leader Farouk Kaddoumi accused Abbas of conspiring with Israel to "assassinate" Arafat in 2004. The conference is also expected to discuss the status of peace talks with Israel. According to a draft "political plan" leaked to some Arab newspapers over the weekend, the Fatah conference will reiterate Fatah's commitment to the "armed struggle" against Israel as one of the options to achieve an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Fatah, according to the reports, is also expected to reemphasize its opposition to Israel's demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state. The draft plan calls for the Palestinians to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state on all the territories that were captured by Israel in 1967 if the peace talks failed. Hundreds of Fatah officials from different Arab countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, arrived in Bethlehem over the weekend to attend the long-delayed conference. A handful of Fatah operatives from the Gaza Strip also arrived in the city, saying they managed to avoid Hamas checkpoints disguised as laborers and women. Ghalia Abu Sitta, a poet and veteran member of Fatah, said she fled the Gaza Strip on a donkey cart. The Hamas government has refused to allow Fatah members to leave the Gaza Strip for the conference until the PA government released hundreds of Hamas supporters who are being held in its West Bank prisons without trial.