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Fatah Showed Palestinians Democracy is More Than Just a Slogan

By: Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz 

12.08.09

A week after the Sixth Fatah Convention opened, its chairman Mahmoud Abbas could finally sit back, relax and smile. The rais is beginning to shine through as the undisputed winner. Not only did he manage to convene the conference, an achievement that eluded his legendary predecessor Yasser Arafat, the huge event went through almost without incident (barring a brief shootout between the Presidential Guard and their general intelligence colleagues, in a fight over a parking spot). Abbas was unanimously elected to chair the movement, and the new leadership can boast some more popular, slightly younger faces. Even if the "youngsters" are already past 50, they represent a cohort believed to be less corrupt and of impeccable patriotic record. Many were jailed in Israel (Jibril Rajoub, Marwan Barghouti, Mohammad Dahlan, Hussein al-Sheikh) or were Fatah members in Lebanon (Mahmoud al-Aloul, Muhammad al-Madani, Jamal Muheisen and others). 

And there was another winner at the conference: Fatah itself. The organization showed the Palestinian street that democracy was more than just a slogan. Last Wednesday, Hussam Hader, a Tanzim activist from the Balata refugee camp, stood up at the conference hall and told Abbas that at this conference he was just as good as any other Fatah member, and therefore must let his critics speak. Such conduct would not have been tolerated in Arafat's time. This incident, which provoked much interest in the Arab media, amply demonstrates the magnitude of change within Fatah and the freedom of speech granted to its members. It's true that Hader was not elected to the Central Committee, while Abbas' allies Mohammad Ghneim, Mahmoud al-Aloul and Salim Za'noun took top places. But favorite lists and pressure from the top are hardly confined to Likud or Labor. At the end of the day, the vote wasn't rigged, and it took place in front of TV cameras. While Hamas elects its leadership under a shroud of secrecy, far from the Palestinian public's eye and through unclear processes, Fatah showed it can conduct itself in a new and different manner.

Only Tuesday did Hamas' Mahmoud al-Zahar declare that until Fatah and Hamas have reconciled, no general elections could be held in the West Bank and Gaza. Al-Zahar and his organization have every reason to issue such statements and to try and maintain the split between Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas' decline in Palestinian public opinion, and Fatah's surprising unity at the conference's conclusion, reduce Hamas' chance of winning the next general elections. Ironically, a prisoner exchange deal for captive soldier Gilad Shalit could boost Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian street.

Fatah's 18 elected delegates include an intriguing mix of veteran leaders (Sultan Abu Aynayn, Nabil Sha'ath, Salim Za'noun and Abbas Zaki), and the popular leaders who led the masses to negotiations with Israel, as well as to two intifadas (Dahlan, Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, al-Sheikh and Barghouti), not to mention some other personalities, like economist Mohammed Shtayeh or diplomat Nasser al-Kidwa (Arafat's nephew), and, of course, negotiator Saeb Erekat. This is not the kind of leadership likely to take more radical positions toward Israel. Most of its members have negotiated with Israel at one time or another. It might, however, pressure Abbas not to renew negotiations until construction in all settlements, including East Jerusalem, ceases. Most of the delegates also advocate a tough stance toward Hamas, except Rajoub, who calls for for reconciliation.

Several new delegates speaking Tuesday pointed out the first task that lies before them is rebuilding Palestinian faith in Fatah. The new leadership will proceed carefully to see whether it faces the same corruption accusations as its predecessor. If it avoids such pitfalls, Fatah is very likely to gain support in Gaza and the West Bank.