On Jan. 1, 1965, a military communique was issued in Kuwait announcing the first armed Palestinian operation against Israel stemming from south Lebanon. The cross-border armed operation marked the launch of the Fatah Palestinian National Liberation Movement. As the movement celebrates its golden anniversary next week amid intensive preparations for its seventh congress, its leaders will be considering how to tackle countless challenges.
These internal and external challenges include:
Succession — In its 50 years of work, Fatah has known two main leaders: Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, at the age of 79, appears to be in good health, but has made it clear that he plans to step down soon. It is unclear whether his public declarations that he has no plans to run for president also include not running for leader of the movement. In the sixth congress held in Bethlehem in August 2009, he won his position by acclamation without competition. The seventh congress might renew confidence in him, but the key votes for the top positions in the 20-member Central Committee and the 100-member Revolutionary Council will signal the personnel and political direction of the movement for years to come.
Policies — The political challenges facing Palestinians after 47 years of occupation and 20 years of failed negotiations will weigh heavily on Fatah as it turns 50. Which direction should it take in terms of the most effective mechanism for liberation? Should it depend more on negotiations, on resistance activities, or a healthy mix of both? Courageous self-criticism will be expected before any votes are cast. Fatah will need to explain and justify its policies, mistakes and failures, and accountability must be practiced. If no one is held accountable for the failures of executing an effective liberation strategy, the prospect of a rejuvenated movement will be slim.
Need for new blood — While the succession issue is crucial and the need to refocus on policy is needed, the most important result in any congress will be how the rank and file of the movement will act when it comes to electing its new leaders. Palestinians living in the occupied territories complain that local leaders are not given a chance at leadership positions despite bearing the brunt of the sacrifice and work. The inside-outside debate will most certainly be reflected in the votes and will go a long way in either revitalizing the movement or weakening it even further.
Role of the diaspora — Palestinians living outside Palestine have a lot of zeal, enthusiasm and money, but have suffered from the same PLO-Islamist divisions that exist in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Diaspora Palestinians, who for the most part are refugees or descendants of 1948 refugees, have been dealt major blows by Abbas’ public declarations that he has no intentions of returning to live in his birthplace, Safad, and that Palestinians do not want to flood Israel with Palestinian refugees. While on the record the Palestinian leadership has not given away the right of return, many believe that in fact it has and is only giving lip service to the issue. Without a clear clause unequivocally supporting the right of return, it will be difficult to invigorate Palestinians in the diaspora.
Nonviolent resistance — The congress will certainly celebrate the sacrifices of its members in recent years, but will give special focus to Ziad Abu Ein, who sacrificed his life while trying to plant olive trees in the face of Jewish settlement expansion. His story will be a powerful example of the need for the entire Palestinian movement to intensify nonviolent popular resistance, especially as it tries to give support to the negotiators and as it reflects a stark difference from the armed actions of Hamas.
Defining a role — The imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti has always refused to take any public position in the Palestinian Authority and has always argued that Fatah should not become embroiled with government positions so as to lose its mandate as a national resistance movement. Some Fatah activists told Al-Monitor that this relationship with the government has corrupted the movement amid continued accusations that officials are only interested in the wealth and power that is associated with government positions, rather than focusing on the movement’s goal of liberation. Fatah needs to define a role of supporting governments without being part of them.
Fatah will have a number of other challenges to deal with. The problems with former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan and his supporters will certainly leave its mark. Gaza and how to deal with the challenges of rebuilding and reconciliation will also loom large in all sessions of the congress. The delay in joining the International Criminal Court in The Hague will be addressed many times and the absence of an effective communications strategy will be discussed in various forums.
The challenges facing the leading Palestinian national movement are unlikely to be addressed in the two- or three-day congress in Ramallah in January, but a meeting of the movements’ elected delegates from Palestine and around the world will be an opportunity to send clear signals as to the direction the movement will take. A number of Fatah leaders approached by Al-Monitor stressed the need for a self-critical approach to address their challenges in the most effective way.
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