A brand new Fatah?

Fatah will embark on a track to restore public support, pull carpet from under Hamas's feet.

Fatah committee election waiting 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Fatah committee election waiting 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Convening Fatah's Sixth General Conference in Bethlehem represents a new chapter not only in the history of the movement but also in its future deliberations. Fatah was established as an underground resistance movement in exile inspired by the radical liberation movements of the 1950s and '60s in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. The declared goal was to liberate all Mandatory Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Over the years and due to regional and global developments, Fatah switched its position from the wholesale liberation of Palestine to a Palestinian state living alongside Israel on the June 1967 cease-fire lines. Obviously, in the current situation, this goal seems unachievable and Fatah as a movement has to reconsider its practices, policies, failures and the reasons that brought it to where it was before the conference. There is no doubt that the lack of accountability and democracy inside the movement, coupled with the hegemony of the old guard - partly enabled by avoiding holding a general conference for 20 years - brought the movement to its lowest point in terms of popularity since it was created in 1958. Fatah membership, or affiliation with Fatah pre-Oslo process, used to be enough to secure a one-to-three year jail sentence by Israel. It was considered membership in a terrorist organization. AFTER OSLO, and for the first time in its history, the Fatah movement became legitimate on its own soil, bringing the movement from exile to the occupied homeland. The presence of the late Yasser Arafat at the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, however, confused relations between the three bodies, and Fatah stood to be blamed for the failure of any of them. The corruption of the PA was thus associated with Fatah, and the failure of the Oslo peace process saw popular support swing toward the opponents of Oslo, notably Hamas, which eventually scored an overwhelming victory in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, pushing Fatah to the margins. Hamas' victory was followed by the Israeli siege on Gaza, the war and the deterioration of all aspects of life in Gaza. These all provided evidence that Hamas leaders were not up to the responsibility of running state affairs. The bloody coup in Gaza in June 2007 and its consequences caused further damage to Hamas's image including among those who voted for the Islamist movement in 2006. The average citizen became fed up with both Fatah and Hamas. But there was no third alternative. The conference in Bethlehem has thus assumed national and political importance. But has anything changed? Yes and no. Fatah will continue to be the spearhead of the Palestinian national struggle. The newly elected leadership for the first time includes a good number of prominent figures from inside the territories. The challenge for this leadership is to prove that it is different from the former old guard. It has to reconsider strategy in the negotiations process, recalibrate administration of the PA, consider activation of the almost moribund PLO and present itself as a new alternative to Hamas. Israel may regret one day that it allowed the convening of the Fatah conference in Bethlehem because the new leadership will not agree to carry on negotiating indefinitely without real progress toward a political settlement and while Israel continues its settlement activities in occupied territory. A new generation of leaders will soon have to confront the reality of Israel's anti-peace activities and at the same time seek to regain the sympathy and support of their own people. Maybe Fatah will become a sort of a political party in the occupied territories, but the lack of progress toward a political solution will inspire some of its members to long for the old days of underground struggle against occupation. Everything lies in the hands of Israel and the international community. But one fact should not be ignored: The new Fatah emerging from the Bethlehem conference will embark again on the track to restore its public support and pull the carpet from under the feet of Hamas. Indeed, now there is an alternative to both the old Fatah and the radical Hamas The writer is the co-founder and Palestinian editor of Palestine-Israel Journal, a former PLC member and a former PA minister. This article originally appeared in www.bitterlemons-international.org and is reprinted with permission.