Fatah seeks to renew leadership at long-awaited congress

More than twenty years after Fatah's last convention, two thousand delegates of the Palestinian movement meet in Bethlehem on Tuesday in a bid to restore some of the legitimacy lost since the death of their late leader Yasser Arafat.


AFP - The Fatah party which controls the Palestinian Authority holds its first congress in 20 years this week to renew a leadership undermined by internal rifts and the faction's 2007 rout from the Gaza Strip by Hamas.

Fatah is due to renew the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, its two main governing bodies, at the congress opening on Tuesday in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

During the three-day gathering, the 2,300 delegates are also set to adopt a new political programme.

 Founded in 1959 by the Palestinians' historic leader Yasser Arafat, Fatah exercised undivided power among Palestinians before it was defeated by the Islamist Hamas faction in the 2006 legislative election.

Longstanding Hamas-Fatah tensions boiled over in June 2007 when the Islamists seized control of Gaza after a week of deadly street clashes, confining Palestinian president and Fatah leader Mahmud Abbas's power base to the West Bank.

In the past few years, Fatah has moved away from armed struggle against Israeli occupation in favour of the search for a negotiated peace, but has been losing credibility as the efforts have failed to produce tangible results.

According to a document obtained by AFP, Fatah will reaffirm its refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinian leadership's refusal to resume peace talks until Israel halts settlement building in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The congress will be only the sixth in Fatah history, with the previous one held in Tunis in 1989.

While Abbas is certain to remain at the helm of Fatah, there is much speculation as to who the delegates will elect to the 21-strong Central Committee and some veterans are expected to make way to younger Palestinians.

Fatah's West Bank secretary general Marwan Barghuti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly attacks, former West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub and Fatah's one-time strongman in Gaza Mohammed Dahlan, appear to be the strongest contenders.

But much will depend on alliances between rival political clans.

The 120-strong Revolutionary Council will be largely elected by the delegates, with the new Central Committee designating some members.

Disputes among Fatah leaders, which have significantly weakened the movement, flared up in recent weeks, with secretary general Faruq Kaddumi publicly accusing Abbas of plotting with Israel to get rid of Arafat, who died in 2004.

Kaddumi, who is based in Tunis, objected to holding the Congress in the West Bank, which he has not visited since Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967.

Preparations also were marred by Hamas's refusal to allow some 400 Fatah delegates to travel from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank for the Congress

Israel has given the green light for about 500 delegates who live abroad to travel to the congress.

"This congress will mark a historic turning point," said political analyst Hani al-Masri.

"Either Fatah will show it can carry out the reforms, the rejuvenation and the necessary changes by learning from its failures... or it continues its decline," he said.

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