Fatah rows cast cruel light on Palestinian split

The first congress in 20 years of the dominant Palestinian party that would seal a future peace pact with Israel was in danger on Friday of fizzling out in discord, frustrating a drive for reform.

The Fatah movement—steered for decades by the autocratic hand of the late Yasser Arafat and now led by President Mahmoud Abbas—is bedevilled by internal splits compounded by an unending feud with its bitter Islamist rival Hamas.

The Fatah congress in Bethlehem, the first since 1989 and the first on Palestinian soil, was supposed to mark a rebirth of the secular party, injecting new blood into its executive ranks.

Instead it has cast a harsh light on divisions crippling the drive for an end to Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian homeland—not only the gulf between Fatah and Hamas, but the acrimonious schisms within Fatah itself.

“Every Palestinian is keen to see an end to this. It is, I think, one of the darkest chapters in the Palestinian struggle ever,” said Sabry Saydam, vice-president of the congress and an adviser to Abbas.

Arab commentators from Mauritania to Yemen on Friday applauded a blunt warning to the Palestinians this week from Saudi King Abdullah, who said there would never be a Palestinian state “as long as the Palestinian house is divided”.

Unlike Fatah, Hamas refuses to renounce the fight against Israel or accept its right to exist, and has been locked in a power struggle with Fatah for the past four years. Abdullah said the feud had done more damage to the Palestinian cause “in a few months” than Israel had over years of conflict.

“I agree with what he says completely,” said Nabil Shaath, a veteran member of Fatah’s Central Committee at the congress in Bethlehem, now in its fourth day.

Shaath, seeking re-election, pledged to continue striving for reconciliation.
But many ordinary Palestinians are clearly losing patience.

Voteless in Gaza
“We call on all the Arabs to save us from this disaster we are living,” said Saad Areefi in the Gaza Strip, an enclave now ruled by Hamas and blockaded by Israel. “Punish those who don’t want to end the split.”

“How will we create a Palestinian state if we don’t care about one another?” another Gaza resident asked.

The West Bank and Gaza, which are separated by Israeli territory, would together form a future Palestinian state in a peace deal with Israel—except they are now governed by rivals whose hostility is proving irrepressible.

The Bethlehem congress, already into overtime, spent hours trying to agree how the wishes of about 400 Gaza delegates prevented by Hamas from leaving the strip are to be respected when voting is held for the two main party executive bodies.

Delegates were still wrangling on Friday about a proposal to have them vote by telephone or email, or simply to appoint a number of Gaza members to Fatah’s Central Committee and decision-making Revolutionary Council.

Because of its anti-peace stance, Hamas will have no obvious part in a peace plan that United States President Barack Obama is expected to launch in the coming weeks.

If stalled negotiations resume, Abbas and Fatah will be Israel’s main interlocutor. The movement hopes to recapture the support of Palestinian voters in an election due in early 2010, after losing to Hamas in 2006.

The makeover it is seeking at this congress of about 2 300 delegates, however, may prove beyond its grasp.

Reformists say the aging “old guard” has stacked the convention. There have been charges of vote-buying and nepotism, and angry exchanges behind closed doors.

Israel was taking a wait-and-see attitude. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said earlier this week: “The real test will come after the convention when a leadership is formed ... and we will see what the leadership [brings] to the negotiating table.”—Reuters

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