Where is Fatah headed?

Toufic Haddad looks at the pressures faced by Fatah--historically, the leading organization of the Palestinian national movement--as its first party conference in 20 years gets underway.

Protesting Israeli roadblocks in the West BankProtesting Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank

THE MOST significant political development currently taking place in the Palestinian political arena is not a conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, or between Fatah and Hamas. It is the struggle within Fatah over the movement's identity, history and political program.

August 4, 2009, will mark the first time Fatah holds a party conference in 20 years. The movement is set to assess the movement's recent history, elect its leadership and vote on its political platform.

The last time Fatah held a conference in August 1989, political conditions were far more hopeful.

The first Intifada--a popular civil disobedience campaign against Israeli occupation forces in the heart of Palestinian cities and refugee camps--had swept across the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) for over a year. Images of rock-throwing children confronting armed Israeli troops generated international attention and support for the Palestinian cause. The Intifada provided a lifeline to the exiled Palestinian leadership hunkered down far away in Tunis since its expulsion from Lebanon in 1982.

In July 1988, Jordan abandoned its claims to represent the Palestinians in negotiations--a victory for the independence of the national cause that came at the expense of the Jordanian monarchy, which had formerly clung to territorial and political ambitions over Palestine.

In November 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also declared an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, even if the Israeli occupation continued in force on the ground. The declaration was a symbolic expression of the will for Palestinian self-determination and statehood and was a show of strength, given that the number of countries that recognized the PLO and the state of Palestine rivaled if not surpassed those that recognized Israel.

But today, the atmosphere is cloudy, if not depressing. In many ways, Fatah has been forced to hold its conference--its sixth since its founding in 1965--because the national movement it has led for the last 40 years is in shambles. So is the party itself.

Fatah lost the January 2006 elections to Hamas because the movement's political program embodied in the Oslo Accords, or the "peace process," failed to yield Palestinian national rights--to independence, to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, to the release of political prisoners, or even to the end of Israeli settlements, whose populations doubled between 1993 and 2000. Fatah was also accused of corruption and nepotism, and Hamas offered a reformist alternative to Palestinian affairs as well as a harder line regarding negotiations with Israel.

But Fatah's woes didn't stop there. After losing the elections, its most corrupt elements attempted to organize a coup against Hamas in Gaza with CIA backing, but were trounced by the more popular and dynamic Hamas. The coup's backers had to flee under Israeli protection to the West Bank.

There are other outstanding questions the party needs to resolve. Damning allegations of corruption are rife within the party, including accusations that some party bigwigs sold cement to Israel to build its enormous 724-kilometer wall. Then there are questions about how Arafat died--and whether anyone within the movement should be implicated in what many believe was an assassination.

Thousands of Fatah prisoners also languish in Israeli prisons and feel abandoned by their leadership. Internal democracy in the movement has been stifled for so long that two generations of party leaders have never been able to exercise control over the party's organs.

The task before Fatah is indeed daunting, and it is by no means certain that the movement, led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)--the same leader in charge during many of Fatah's worst moments--will be able to take the challenges head on.

The significance of the Fatah conference thus lies not only in what will come of Fatah, its leadership and its political trajectory, but also the implications for the movement's relations with Hamas and the national movement's approach to Israel and its Likud-led government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

To gain a sense for the dynamics going on in Fatah in the run up to the conference, I decided to translate a large excerpt from an article by Bilal al Hassan, published in the pan-Arab daily, Al Sharq al Awsat, which comes out of London. Hassan was a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a former editor of the journal Shu'un Filasteeniya (Palestine Affairs), the seminal journal of the Palestinian national movement in the late 1960s up until the 1980s. He is also the brother of Hani al Hassan, a former close political adviser to Yasser Arafat and a ranking member of Fatah.

Bilal has been around long enough to understand the dynamics of Fatah, and he also has the contacts to be able to write with credibility on what is going on in the movement, as it prepares for its moment of truth with itself. His conclusions are not very optimistic, I'm afraid. It seems that many of the ploys and power games used by Fatah throughout the years to manipulate and control other factions within the Palestinian national movement have now been turned inward against Fatah, thereby setting the stage for the movement's final demise.

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Excerpts from "The moment for the curtain to fall on the unity of Fatah has arrived," by Bilal Al Hasan, Al Sharq al Awsat, July 19, 2009

Unofficial translation by Toufic Haddad

Meetings held by the "Preparatory Committee for Fatah's Sixth Conference" were taking place in a successive manner and witnessed various differences and agreements revolving around three [main] issues: the place in which the conference would be held--either in areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority [in the OPT] or in an Arab capital; the delegates to the conference--who are they? how many would there be? and the criteria for choosing them?; and finally, the documents to be presented at the conference, and which political tack they would take--one that confronted the Israeli occupation, or one that saw the end of this discourse, and instead emphasized the need to engage in building the [Palestinian] Authority.

As is always the case with Fatah, the Committee witnessed different currents and opinions [as to how to resolve these matters], until something strange happened, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the movement, announced in a unilateral manner the [Preparatory] Committee's dissolution, which was headed by Mohammed Ghenim (Abu Maher), a member of Fatah's Higher Committee.

Mahmoud Abbas also announced, in a unilateral manner, that he was calling upon a number of Fatah cadres located in the West Bank to an emergency meeting in the presidential compound. The meeting--the majority of whose attendees derived from one political stripe--took absolute and binding decisions regarding all three issues that had been debated in the dissolved "Preparatory Committee."

It was decided that the conference would take place inside [the OPT] and that the delegates would be open to 1,200 to 1,600 [members of Fatah], so as to give the opportunity to change and exchange [members]. As for the [conference's preparatory] documents [and their political line], discourse would head towards ending armed confrontation with the occupation. It [armed struggle] will remain mentioned in [the movement's] general principles, but will be removed from the operational program.

This is what happened in the face of the Preparatory Committee, and against it. A coup in every sense of the term. A coup inside Fatah, led and implemented by the head of the government, that aims in the end to control it organizationally, intellectually, and politically, and with the support of a group that represents one current inside Fatah with respect to its political coloration. One current [as well] as far as its membership.

Everyone was aware that what took place in Ramallah was an actual beginning to the splitting of Fatah--a split between one current on the inside [in the OPT] that brings with it from outside those who resemble it [a reference to inviting diasporic members supportive of Abu Mazen to the conference in Bethlehem], and the exclusion of any other current that might be in opposition. All were also aware that matters would not be confined to the level of mere opinion and [political] approach but would also result in a leadership of the same coloration, within the Fatah Central Committee as well as within Fatah's Revolutionary Assembly--the two principal bodies of the movement.

Some time passed on the decisions taken by Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas, and an atmosphere of silent protest overcame the movement, were it not for two leaflets published in the name of Fatah's fighting cadre [its armed wing]. [The leaflets] failed to mention names, [but] announced their opposition to what took place and accused those behind what happened with a host of charges.

Then Farouq al Qaddoumi (Abu Lutf) called for a press conference in Amman in which he detonated a bombshell more powerful than Abbas'. He [Qaddoumi] is the only one capable of doing this. Qaddoumi said, "So and so from Fatah conspired with Ariel Sharon to kill Yasser Arafat." Qaddoumi is a founder of Fatah, a member of its Central Committee, the Secretary General of its Central Committee (Higher Committee), the head of the politburo of the PLO, and the Foreign Minister of the state of Palestine, as declared in 1988 [when the PLO declared independence].

Behind the detonation of his political bombshell stands Qaddoumi's political credibility.

It is thus possible to say that the splits inside Fatah are no longer a question of analysis or conclusion [made from the outside], but have become a reality--with one wing led by a big Fatah leader in Ramallah [Abu Mazen] and the second led by a Fatah heavyweight in Amman and Tunis [the cities Qaddoumi has largely resided in since the Oslo Accords of 1993].

Now it remains to be seen what the position of the cadre and membership of the movement will be, and to whom they will declare allegiance, whether for one wing or the other. They could even express indifference [to both], in which case matters [inside Fatah] will collapse even faster.

Observers of Fatah, and those familiar with its atmosphere, currents and issues, expect that nothing from here on in is going to be smooth or simple. Developments will also not be solely determined on the basis of ideas or logic. That is, the Fatah wing enthroned in Ramallah controls the money through which it guarantees the salaries of tens--actually, hundreds--of members on its payrolls. It also controls the money that guarantees the paychecks of those heading into retirement, once they turn 60, or after 45, if they [the leadership] so desire. The paying of these salaries takes place by way of the budget of the Ministry of Finance in the Palestinian Authority or the budget of the Palestinian National Trust, which for years has had the political task of exiling the generation of resistance from Fatah and the like into the world of retirement [a reference to a PLO practice of marginalizing former guerillas and nationalist figures, many from the early days of the Palestinian revolution, by forcibly retiring them and giving them a salary].

It is then a war of money, a war of hunger, which we might be witnessing in the coming months, which could result in the hunger of some who in turn seek an outlet for themselves. Or, it will result in the silencing of some, who refrain from declaring their opinion so as to secure their daily bread for their families. This is a pitiful state, in which the path of fighters, strugglers, cadre and their qualifications--those who worked for many years to create what is termed the history of "the Palestinian Revolution"--will end. Rather than giving them praise and thanks [for their sacrifices], they face the terror of silence, the terror of hunger, or the tragedy of life on the margins.

But if Fatah splits, it won't just split in two. There could be successive splits--one splitting off independently in an Arab country, another in Europe [etc.], so that we find ourselves before a series of Fatah splinters. Moreover these splits will not result in anything inevitable [such as the reform of the movement], but could bring about the gradual diminishing of the movements membership [overall], such that its [Fatah's] body, presence and influence atrophy day after day, until one day the only part of Fatah within them is a piece of its history.

These splits point to the end and failure of the Palestinian national project that was led by Fatah, by way of the PLO and its declared political program. They also point to the end of the revolution and the failure of the revolution. The question here is what comes after the end of a revolution and its failure?

First published at FasterTimes.com.