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Fatah is turning into a footnote

The future of Fatah is up in the air. Internal divisions and a confused political programme – problems that arguably date back decades – have led this historic Palestinian party to a moment of truth. It is no exaggeration to say that the crisis is of sufficient proportions that Fatah’s continued existence as a political force to be reckoned with is under threat.

This can be best illustrated by a non-event, namely the sixth Fatah general conference, which some 20 years on since the last such meeting, continues to be bereft of a firm date or location. Rumours come and go about when – or even if – the conference will be held; in public, the official line is that the inordinate delay is a result of the necessary preparations.

There is some sense in the claim that a degree of unity among delegates must be achieved beforehand so that the conference is not a complete failure. However, there are many who see the foot-dragging as a sign that those in power fear the results of internal elections.

The conference has assumed a critical importance for a party facing numerous and substantial problems, particularly the extent to which Fatah is internally divided. This has often been simplified as an “old” versus “young guard”, but the reality is more complex.

There are indeed some who returned from exile during the 1990s only to become bywords for corruption and nepotism – but the Palestinian Authority is also staffed with “native” West Bank leaders for whom business interests long since trumped fighting for national liberation. Then there are also the groupings created by individuals who have a loyal power base around them.

A significant element of the divisions is a lack of consensus on a political programme; some still believe in the international peace process, others want a return to armed resistance (though even many people in the former grouping do not sincerely believe negotiations will produce real results). Then there are Fatah leaders who defend the Palestinian Authority, and others who want it dismantled.

Meanwhile, externally, Fatah continues to be challenged by Hamas. From the elections in 2006 and the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, through to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has consolidated its strength and popularity, in parallel to the increased disillusionment and scorn felt by many Palestinians for Fatah.

This cynicism is exacerbated by the failure of the official peace process – a strategy that many senior Fatah leaders have based their careers on – to deliver an end to occupation the securing of Palestinian political and human rights.

Such is the scale of Fatah’s crisis that the conference is of vital importance, but also insufficient as a solution in and of itself. If, as demanded by Fatah’s local members and leadership in the occupied territories, there was a change in personnel in the Revolutionary Council and Central Committee, the question of Fatah’s political programme would still remain.

The future of Fatah has important ramifications for the region. After Oslo, the fate of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority became intertwined to the extent that now, it can be hard to unpick the interests of one from the other. The internal battle for the political direction of Fatah will have a huge influence on the way in which the Palestinians approach the so-called peace process and negotiations with Israel.

Beset by internal splits, openly challenged by Hamas and apparently helpless to slow down – let alone stop – Israeli colonisation, the future of Fatah looks bleak. Fatah’s name may be writ large in the history of the Palestinian struggle in the 20th century, but to be more than a footnote in the future, there is a lot to be done. Finally holding the sixth conference and internal elections is an essential first step.

First published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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