If one chooses to be charitable, last week’s meeting of the most significant Palestinian nationalist movement in Israeli-besieged Palestine for the first time since its founding in the early 1960s could be considered an achievement, certainly historic.
If nothing else, it allowed over 2,000 members of the Palestinian Liberation Movement, or Fateh, to assemble in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and begin the process of rejuvenating what has been described as “a bloated gerontocracy” which has not met for 20 years.
It certainly underlined the Palestinians’ yearning to return to their usurped homeland despite the fact that many coming from neighbouring Arab countries like Syria and Lebanon had to secure clearance from the Israeli occupation authorities, in itself an insulting and a degrading step.
Over the years, Fateh and its popular founder, Yasser Arafat, led the march to regain Palestine, certainly the territories that were occupied in 1967 when Israeli troops managed to drive away armies of neighbouring Arab states that were in control of these areas, including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Much as Arafat and his close advisers were successful in drawing international attention to the plight of the Palestinians, they failed in political organisation. Corruption and lack of discipline became distinct features of Fateh.
The conference, slated to run for three days, ended up running for eight days due to the power struggle within the group. Few of the deliberations were public; most were behind closed doors, including the two-hour statement of Arafat’s lackluster successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who assumed presidency of the Palestinian Authority in 2004 when Arafat passed away.
In the meantime, the well-meaning new leader has managed to win the support of various Western leaders because of his declared intention to reach a negotiated settlement with the Israelis. But as far as these leaders are concerned, they failed to energetically support a fair settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite the fact that the first peace accord between the two feuding parties was signed in 1993 in Oslo, Norway.
Generally speaking, the conference resulted in seemingly significant change that could herald a new beginning for the Palestinians. For example, a leading Fateh official who participated in past and recent negotiations and served as prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, failed to get elected to Fateh’s 23-member all-powerful central committee.
Moreover, only four members of the committee were reelected, along with 12 new, younger, candidates, including the controversial Mohammad Dahlan and his former security colleague Jibril Rajoub. But the most startling development was the election of Marwan Barghouthi, a popular top Fateh leader who is now serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.
Abbas, in his capacity as president of the Palestinian Authority, serves as a member of the committee; he will have to select four others representing various religious minorities, women groups and outlying geographic areas because their nominees did not get the necessary votes.
Meanwhile, a dark cloud hung over the meetings in Bethlehem because of the alleged collusion of some key Fateh leaders with Israel in plotting the assassination of Arafat, who, it is claimed, died in France as a result of poisoning. Abbas and Dahlan, a former security chief in the Palestinian Authority, were the targets of these unsubstantiated charges levelled by another senior Fateh colleague, Farouk Qaddumi, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Although the charges preoccupied the Palestinian communities everywhere, there was no apparent disruption of the Bethlehem conference, which was held behind closed doors.
A more serious issue that preoccupied the conferees was the split between Fateh and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which won the last Palestinian general election in 2006 and, a year later, took over control of Gaza Strip. All attempts, championed by Egypt, to resolve the conflict between the two Palestinian parties have so far been unfruitful. Some saw, however, hope in reconciliation after Hamas allowed Fateh delegates to cast their votes telephonically, a factor that delayed the counting of the votes.
Whether one sees the takeover of Fateh by a younger generation as a successful facelift or not, the road ahead is still arduous. Bringing order to the Palestinian house should remain an important goal for all Palestinians, including Fateh and Hamas, or else, as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned, the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state would not be possible even if all world supported this step.
This is a point that should not be overlooked since Israelis like right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are ready to pounce on any excuse that will claim, as he has done, that the pronouncements made at the convention “bury any chance” of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.