Nidal Al-Mughrabi
August 4, 2009 - 12:00am

A Fatah member stuck in the Gaza Strip while his Palestinian movement holds its first congress in 20 years said on Tuesday he hoped it emerges stronger, to meet challenges including Hamas Islamists who control the enclave.

In a stark illustration of the deep split in Palestinian ranks, nearly 400 members of Fatah were barred by their rival Hamas from leaving Gaza to attend the convention, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Senior Fatah member Ashraf Goma said he could not have gone anyway because he was also barred from leaving by Israel, which controls crossings into its territory lying between Gaza and the West Bank.

The two territories could be joined to form a state if peace were agreed with Israel. For now, however, they are separate entities under the control of rival movements.

As the Bethlehem congress opened, Fatah supporters in Gaza sat in front of television sets to watch the proceedings, which began with a speech by President Mahmoud Abbas reminding members that their goal was a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

Hamas, by contrast, refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and speaks only of a long-term truce.

Goma recalled that Fatah's last congress was held in exile, in Tunisia, in 1989. "I feel a mixture of happiness and grief," he said. "All Fatah people today in Gaza are following the congress on television screens."

Goma hoped the congress would elect new leaders to the 18-member Central Committee "who will rise up with the movement and lead it forward."

Mired for years in allegations of corruption and complacency, the movement long headed by Yasser Arafat was stunned in a 2006 election when a majority of Palestinian voters chose Hamas to lead them instead.

Fatah has been struggling to recover ever since, but its forces were driven from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and months of talks mediated by Egypt have failed to reconcile the two.

Goma said the absence of Gaza members could hamper efforts by the Fatah congress to vote through major changes.

"The changes may not big but any change would be positive," said the bearded Fatah legislator. Transparency and accountability would be major goals.

The takeover of Gaza by Hamas did not hurt his movement, Goma said. "Fatah has become stronger than any one could imagine. What Hamas did benefited Fatah, it united its men and it united their efforts and it has even increased its members."

Goma said Fatah had no plans to use military force against Hamas in Gaza but "one day Fatah will have its word either through election ballots or through any other legitimate means."


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