Thousands of security personnel were deployed all over Bethlehem with the venue of the conference made inaccessible to many journalists, some of who were detained briefly for “trespassing” and “not possessing valid press credentials”.
Fatah is also facing a host of fateful crises, including a moribund peace process with Israel and an enduring rift with Hamas.
Fatah officials breathed a sigh of relief as the conference became a reality despite Hamas’s decision to bar hundreds of Gazan Fatah delegates from travelling to the West Bank. Frustrated by a manifestly vindictive crackdown by Fatah on its supporters in the West Bank, Hamas has apparently made good on its threat to prevent some 350 Fatah delegates from travelling to Bethlehem for the conference.
Israel, too, denied many Fatah leaders from abroad — and also from Gaza — entry into the West Bank, citing the “security” mantra. Hamas became even more adamant following the death on Tuesday of Kamal Abu Tiema, at a Jordanian hospital. Abu Tiema died of a massive stroke that his relatives and Hamas attribute to intensive torturing by PA security agents in Hebron more than two months ago.
The last Fatah convention was held in 1989 in Tunis under the leadership of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Speaking before some 2,200 delegates representing the movement’s followers at home and in the Diaspora, Palestinian Authority (PA) President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians remained committed to peace talks with Israel as long as there was hope — however tiny — for a just peace.
However, he pointed out that “resistance” remained an option for Palestinians in case peace efforts failed to end the Israeli occupation. “Although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance in conformity with international law.”
This was the first time in years that Abbas invoked “resistance” against Israel. Israel views all forms of Palestinian armed resistance as acts of terror even when targeting Israeli occupation troops.
However, it is widely assumed that references to resistance by the Western-backed Palestinian leader are mainly rhetorical and intended to rally to his side reluctant Fatah delegates who believe that the effective abandonment of armed struggle against the Israeli occupation is costing Fatah dearly in terms of popularity. One Fatah delegate attending the conference commented: “it seems the president wants to satisfy everyone.”
In his lengthy address, described as dull, rhetorical and self-congratulatory by some of his opponents, Abbas lashed out at “the Hamas coup mongers” for preventing Fatah delegates from attending the Bethlehem conference, accusing the Islamic movement of “seeking to derail our national Palestinian scheme.” “The mere fact that Fatah remained steadfast despite all efforts to obliterate it is in itself a miracle. As to our brothers in Gaza, I say to them ‘You are amongst us.’”
Nonetheless, Abbas spoke of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas as being “an integral part of the Palestinian people”. “With our determination and unity with Hamas, we will transform self-rule into an independent Palestinian state.”
Abbas also lambasted those “who are commercialising the blood of Yasser Arafat”, an apparent allusion to charges made last month by Fatah’s second highest ranking man, Farouk Kaddumi, accusing Abbas and former Gaza strongman Mohamed Dahlan of conniving with Israel to poison Arafat. “This talk is embarrassing, shameful, and must stop.”
Pleasantries apart, Fatah is going to have to iron out and find “balanced solutions” for a variety of contentious issues that if untreated would inflict further setbacks on the movement. These issues include: What exactly should be Fatah’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah? Should Fatah coalesce into the PA or remain distinctive and separate? Indeed, can Fatah be distinctive and separate (let alone independent) if it continues to rely for financial survival on the government of Salam Fayyad?
This week, Fatah official Nabil Amr, who is also Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) ambassador to Cairo, called on the movement to be “financially independent” from the PA government. Amr, who has been selected as the chief spokesman of the Bethlehem convention, said it was difficult for Fatah to retain its freedom to differ from — and if necessary criticise — the US-backed government of Fayyad and at the same time continue to depend on its financial generosity.
As for the peace process, Fatah is most likely going to reassert erstwhile Palestinian national constants. These include total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and a dignified settlement of the Palestinian refugee plight in accordance with UN Resolution 194. Such sentiments would be viewed as radical by Israel and probably the Obama administration, implying that the PA would not accept any prospective deal that would allow Israel to retain huge Jewish colonies established on occupied Palestinian territories since 1967.
Israel had repeatedly proposed a “land swap” whereby it would compensate the PA for the annexation of major Jewish settlements by granting the Palestinians a “passage path” between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a swathe of sandy terrain in the northern Negev or near Gaza. The PA hasn’t rejected the idea out of hand, but demands that the land swapped ought to be equal in both quality and quantity.
In all events, nearly 15 years after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, Israel continues to dominate the Palestinian scene as Jewish settlement expansion continues unabated despite US and international objections. Predictably, this is creating frustration amongst Fatah leaders at home and abroad. This week, Jerusalem Fatah leader Hatem Abdel-Qader called for “forging strategic relations” between Fatah and Iran.
“The unprecedented challenges facing the Palestinian people, and the overwhelming dangers haunting the future of Jerusalem, should prompt Fatah to formulate new relations with Iran, a country that has an important strategic weight which should be utilised politically in the service of the Palestinian cause.” Abdel-Qader hinted that Fatah’s Arab allies were being perceived as unimportant assets in the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.
But it is highly unlikely that the PA leadership — particularly Abbas — will give Abdel-Qader’s suggestion serious consideration since a Fatah-Iranian rapprochement, let alone alliance, would deprive the PA and Fatah of Western backing and Israel’s support, however tacit that may be. Still, the frustration harboured by many in Fatah over the “futile” and “fruitless” peace process with Israel will be strongly and directly communicated to Abbas during the present conference.
According to Hani Al-Masri, a prominent Palestinian journalist, many Fatah leaders are demanding a timeframe for the peace process with Israel. “They are extremely worried about an open-ended peace process, which would be used by Israel to expand Jewish settlements and further undermine the prospects of establishing a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank.”