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Fatah strangled at rebirth

Last week, Fatah finished up its general conference in Bethlehem, the first time the movement had held such a gathering for 20 years. The conference, which began on 3 August and ran for several more days than scheduled, was billed as the opportunity for Fatah to breathe some life into an ossified leadership structure and kickstart a political comeback.

As the gathering drew to a close, with Abbas re-elected as party leader, new central committee members announced and votes being counted for the revolutionary council, western media headlines gave the impression that it had largely been a success, like the New York Times’s report: Fatah party election brings in a new generation.

There was certainly a change in personnel at the highest decision-making levels of the organisation; into the central committee came Mohammed Dahlan, Marwan Barghouti and Jibril Rajoub. But whether what one commentator in Dar al-Hayat called “the return of ex-security chiefs” somehow represented the kind of victory for transparency and political integrity that the Fatah rank and file were looking for is more dubious.

In fact, the reality of Fatah’s conference was a good deal different to how it was portrayed in many typical western media reports. There was limited acknowledgement of the fact that many Palestinians and Arab commentators were pointing out, as Abdel-Beri Atwan did in Al-Quds al-Arabi on 4 August, that “this is the first time in history that a national liberation movement holds its general conference under the spear of the occupation and with the blessing of its government”. Al-Sharq newspaper also noted that the conference was taking place “with Israel’s sponsorship, and protection”.

There was also little explanation in the media coverage about the mechanisms that had both led to the conference and the questionable events during the meeting. The vast majority of the more than 2,000 delegates were handpicked by a group around the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who had disbanded the elections committee set up to pick attendees.

During the conference itself, there were reports of 700 extra delegates showing up – but who they were, or why they had been chosen, was unclear. One delegate even claimed “veteran and wealthy Fatah officials had appointed their drivers, secretaries and neighbours as delegates to the conference”, to boost their vote tally.

Abbas was elected uncontested as Fatah’s head by a show of hands in front of the cameras by the mainly appointed delegates. In the aftermath of the central committee results there were a number of allegations of vote-rigging, including from Ahmed Qureia, while a close aide to Abbas went from loser to winner after a “recount”.

Open challenges to the ruling establishment at the conference – or simply calls for genuine accountability – were not well received, and there were also reported beatings administered by Abbas’s security. Little wonder that some have felt it appropriate to make comparisons with the Ba’ath party.

The most positive spin possible on the conference is that there is a newly elected leadership in place to which Abbas will now be accountable. But even if the conference had been characterised by transparency, rigorous debate and radical restructuring, Fatah would still be facing its main challenges: defining the relationships between Fatah-PA-PLO; corruption; unity talks with Hamas; and confronting Israeli colonisation.

With some Fatah members already preparing their protests, the future of Fatah is barely less gloomy than it was before the conference. With no acknowledgement of past mistakes and key leadership positions viewed as sources of personal power and privilege, the conference may not have been a rebirth so much as an exercise in prolonging the inevitable.

First published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

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