Fatah's leadership crisis deepens
By Helena Cobban | Friday, 07.31.2009, 11:54 PM

Palestinians, whose houses were destroyed during the three-week offensive Israel launched last December, take part in a protest in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, July 29, 2009, calling on international donors to help in reconstructing their houses. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

WASHINGTON (IPS) — Fifty years ago, a small group of Palestinian teachers and engineers living in Kuwait founded a secretive movement aimed at liberating those portions of previously British-ruled Palestine that became the State of Israel in 1948.

The group they founded, Fatah, went on to dominate the entire Palestinian political scene. In 1969 it took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been founded by the Arab states — as a counter to Fatah — a few years earlier.

In 1993, it was Fatah/PLO head Yasser Arafat who signed the 'Oslo Accord' with Israel; and the following year Arafat became president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) established in occupied Ramallah.

But for several years, Fatah has been in crisis, and now that crisis is coming to a sharp head. Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is planning to convene a meeting of Fatah's policymaking General Conference Aug. 4. By insisting on holding it in occupied Bethlehem — which will enable Israel's security forces to completely control who attends and who does not — he has helped split the group's historic leadership down the middle.

In mid-July, Farouq al-Qaddoumi, a longtime Fatah leader who is senior to Abbas within the movement, lashed out at Abbas, accusing him of having conspired with Israel and the U.S. to poison Arafat, who died of unknown causes in late 2004.

Qaddoumi is one of the numerous Fatah activists and leaders who refused to "return" to the still-occupied West Bank and Gaza after Oslo, arguing that to do so would place Fatah too tightly under the thumb of Israel's occupation regime. He made his recent accusation against Abbas in nearby Amman, Jordan.

The split between these men highlights the much deeper division within Fatah between those who sought, after Oslo, to work with the occupation regime and to get what concessions they could from it, and those who either refused to "return" under the circumstances of occupation or who were barred by Israel from returning.

At present, more than five million Palestinians are forced by Israel to live outside their historic homeland. Many of these exiles are stateless refugees, and many — especially in Lebanon — have lived for decades in very tough conditions. Some 4.3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, which came under Israeli military occupation in 1967.

(An additional 1.3 million Palestinians live inside Israel, where they have citizenship.)

The split within Fatah between the "insiders" — those who live in the Occupied Territories — and the "outsiders," has been deeply damaging to the movement. The founding idea of Fatah, back in the 1950s, was to demand the "return" to their original homes and farms of all those Palestinians who had been expelled from them by the infant Jewish/Israeli forces in 1948, or who left them during the intensity of that fighting, and have never been allowed to return home since.

When Israel allowed Arafat, Abbas, and a few thousand PLO administrators and fighters to "return" to the Occupied Territories in 1994, for the vast majority of the returnees this was still only a very incomplete form of the return they had long sought, since they were still barred from going back to the homes and farms they or their parents had left in 1948.

The split between Qaddoumi and Abbas goes back to before Oslo. Abbas had been the main architect within Fatah and the PLO of the whole Oslo approach. His idea, as he said in interviews in the late 1980s, was to show the Israelis so much friendship, and give them so many assurances of concern for their safety, that they "could not avoid" meeting the Palestinians' demand for an independent mini-state alongside Israel.

At that time Qaddoumi was the person on the PLO's ruling Executive Committee charged with running the PLO's foreign policy. When Abbas pursued the discussions in Norway that led to the Oslo Accord, he was going behind Qaddoumi's back. But he had the backing of the powerful, but always very manipulative, PLO/Fatah head, Yasser Arafat.

When the PLO concluded the Oslo Accord with Israel in 1993, Qaddoumi and his followers inside Fatah were left out in the cold. Now, 16 years later, they are trying to make a comeback. But one very likely outcome of the current stand-off between Qaddoumi and Abbas is that Fatah may break into two or quite possibly many more irreconcilable factions.

There are numerous deep political problems among Fatah leaders and activists within the Occupied Territories, too. Many longtime activists who were indigenous to the West Bank and Gaza and who led the First Intifada (1987-93) quickly came to resent the arrogance and manipulations that they saw the PLO leaders dishing out to them after they took over the territories in 1994.

These internal tensions inside Fatah are by no means new. But they are coming to a head at a very sensitive time for the Palestinians. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are living under conditions of great stress. They, their compatriots in exile, and their sympathizers around the world are all eager that this stress be relieved in the only way that matters — by seeing an end to Israel's unprecedentedly lengthy military occupation of these lands, and the establishment of a fully independent Palestinian state there.

Here in Washington, Pres. Obama has pledged his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel since his first days in office. But thus far, he has taken no concrete actions to bring this about beyond sending his special envoy, Sen. George Mitchell, to the region on no fewer than five "listening tours."

If Mitchell is to succeed, he will need to rapidly construct an inclusive and authoritative negotiating forum in which Palestinians will be represented by a team that is responsive to both Fatah and its main political challenger in Palestinian politics, the Islamist movement Hamas.

In late June, Hamas' head, Khaled Meshaal, affirmed more definitively than ever that Hamas will allow Mahmoud Abbas to conduct the actual negotiations with Israel, so long as any peace treaty that results is submitted to a nationwide referendum of all Palestinians. He has also affirmed Hamas' support for the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967 and a fair resolution of the claims of Palestinian refugees.

In Ramallah, prominent Fatah parliamentarian Azzam al-Ahmed said Thursday that he believes Fatah has finally found a formula to resolve one of its longstanding points of contention with Hamas. There now seems a reasonable hope that the next Fatah-Hamas reconciliation meeting, scheduled for late August in Cairo, might be successful.

But a big question still hangs over whether Fatah itself can preserve its internal unity until then. Many Palestinian analysts have noted that Hamas, which was born originally in Gaza, shifted its national headquarters to outside the Occupied Territories back in the mid-1990s. And despite many waves of devastating Israeli assassinations against Hamas leaders and activists, the movement has retained its internal organizational integrity and unity.

This was similar to the path followed by South Africa's African National Congress (ANC), which in the 1960s moved its national headquarters to Lusaka, Zambia, rather than keep it under the thumb of the apartheid regime.

The Fatah general conference scheduled for Aug. 4 will be the sixth such gathering. These conferences are supposed to be held every five years — but the movement's internal differences have prevented it from holding one since 1989.

Since then, there have been many big political developments, including Oslo and all the disappointments that flowed from it. The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has more than doubled. And Arafat and many other long-time Fatah leaders have died — meaning that the participants' list that Abbas has compiled for the Aug. 4 conference has been challenged by many Fatah factions.

For Fatah's rapidly ageing leaders, it may be very hard now for them to regenerate the movement's leadership bodies. Indeed, at a time when the Palestinian people desperately need leaders who can make big and wise decisions, it may be hard for Fatah's leaders to make any decisions at all.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.


By Helena Cobban

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