August 5, 2009 / 6:08 PM / 10 years ago

Old guard "hijacks" Fatah congress, say reformers

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - The first congress in 20 years of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah has been “hijacked” by an older generation, reformers said, threatening to blunt their efforts to rejuvenate the movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) sits in front of a banner depicting the late leader Yasser Arafat as he addresses the Fatah congress in the West Bank town of Bethlehem August 4, 2009. REUTERS/Nayef Hashlamoun

Younger members, seeking a more transparent Fatah ahead of elections due in early 2010, said on Wednesday that the “old guard” had packed the congress with delegates loyal to them in a bid to maintain the status quo.

“The Central Committee is trying to hijack the congress by imposing what they want,” Mansour al-Sadi, one of the younger Fatah members seeking more power, said on the second day of the gathering in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The meeting, which was initially due to run for three days but is likely to be extended, is the first convention that 44-year-old Fatah has held on Palestinian soil after long years of exile. The last one was in Tunis in 1989.

Fatah’s former leader, the late Yasser Arafat, usually found reasons to postpone the party congress. His successor Abbas, in his opening speech, said it was “a miracle” that it was now taking place at all.

While many delegates said simply managing to get Fatah members to agree to hold the congress was enough of an achievement in itself, the younger guard was unimpressed.

“We have been demanding to hold this congress for many years but this is not the congress that we dreamt of,” said Qaddoura Fares, an advocate of modernization.

REVIVAL IN DOUBT

Abbas and Fatah, locked in rivalry with Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip, are the Western-backed interlocutors who would sign a peace deal with Israel, if one could be negotiated.

Washington is to launch a fresh peace plan in the coming weeks and anything that can be done to reinforce the authority and burnish the democratic credentials of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank would be welcome.

Fatah’s leadership has been heavily criticized for corruption, complacency and lack of transparency. Reformists saw the congress as an opportunity for a re-launch.

But on Wednesday, they said the “old guard” had added some 700 names to an initial list of 1,550 delegates, in what looked like a bid to pack the congress with likeminded people.

“They illegally keep adding new members. No one knows the actual numbers,” said Sadi.

Abbas on Tuesday stressed that peace with Israel and establishment of a Palestinian state were Fatah’s priorities, although “resistance” remained an option. He did not say what “resistance” entailed but he said it did not mean terrorism.

The group’s political program is up for discussion, but its founding charter is not. That document calls for the destruction of Israel — an apparent anachronism since Fatah has endorsed the 2003 Oslo Accords in which the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Some delegates also wanted the congress to hold to account those responsible for weakening Fatah to the point where it lost the trust of the Palestinian people at a 2006 parliamentary election won by Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip a year later.

But it seemed this would not happen.

Instead, the main event will be the election of 18 members of the Central Committee and 120 of the Revolutionary Council — Soviet-sounding institutions redolent of the movement’s birth during the Cold War.

The aim is to give more say to a younger generation that grew up fighting Israeli occupation in the West Bank and to curb the dominance of older leaders who lived many years in exile. A vote will determine the extent of the change.

Some 80 Fatah members are running for the Central Committee and hundreds want seats on the Revolutionary Council.

“The congress is over,” said delegate Jamil Tarifi, on the second morning of the convention. “The main point is that they will elect members and that’s the end of the story.”

(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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