Fatah elects new guard at landmark congress

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party elected a new generation of leaders at its first congress in 20 years, including a popular militant jailed in Israel, according to results on Tuesday.

Marwan Barghuti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel, was among those elected to Fatah’s governing body at the landmark conference aimed at rejuvenating a party weakened by internal rifts.

Fatah members hope the injection of fresh blood will help revive the main Palestinian secular party, which was founded by Yasser Arafat half a century ago to pursue aspirations of independence but which has lost much of its clout in recent years.

“Today the Fatah emerges from this congress united and strengthened,” said former Palestinian internal security chief Jibril Rajub.

Israelis, however, have protested at Fatah’s adoption of a charter that commits the driving force in the Palestinian Authority to peace but also reserves the right to “resistance”.

Rajub (56), already head of the Palestinian football federation and the Palestinian Olympic committee, was elected along to the 21-strong Central Committee along with Fatah’s former strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan.

Barghuti (50), who was found guilty in 2004 for his role in deadly attacks against Israelis during the second intifada or uprising, is Fatah’s secretary general for the West Bank but never was a member of the Central Committee.

Top Palestinian negotiator and former prime minister Ahmed Qorei was among the party veterans who lost his seat on the committee as the congress returned only three incumbents.

Rajub said the decision to pick a new generation of leaders amounted to a “revolution” ahead of legislative elections that should be held early next year.

“We have many tasks ahead, the main one is to address relations with Hamas,” added Dahlan, who is considered the nemesis of the rival Islamist faction.

About 2 000 delegates at the Fatah congress in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem—the first ever on Palestinian soil—also elected a raft of new leaders to the 120-strong Revolutionary Council.

Fatah, a guerrilla movement that waged hundreds of attacks on Israel before Arafat renounced violence, exercised undisputed power among Palestinians before it was trounced by Hamas in a 2006 parliamentary election.

Its power base has been limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since Fatah forces were routed from Gaza when Hamas violently seized power in the coastal strip in 2007 after days of deadly street battles.

Allegations of corruption and internal divisions further weakened the party.

In his opening speech, Abbas listed a litany of errors he said Fatah had committed, urging delegates to learn from them and use the congress as a platform to give Fatah a new start.

But the very next day, acrimonious disputes broke out as hundreds of delegates protested the lack of administrative and financial accounting by the Fatah leadership since the last congress in Tunis in 1989.

The congress on Saturday re-elected Abbas as head of Fatah, a post he has held since Arafat’s death in 2004, and renewed its charter, effectively endorsing his political programme.

Fatah, which over the years has moved away from armed struggle, underlined its commitment to a negotiated peace with Israel, but stressed that the Palestinian people have a “right to resistance to occupation”.

The clause prompted angry responses from Israeli ministers, who said the charter proved there was no real desire to reach a deal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday told visiting United States Democratic lawmakers there is no body representing all Palestinians, just “Hamastan in Gaza and Fatahland” in the West Bank.

“The Palestinians’ radical and uncompromising positions on Jerusalem, the right of return and the settlement blocs create an unbridgeable gap between us and them,” Lieberman said.—AFP

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