Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – After a two-year delay, Fatah movement’s seventh congress is expected to open on Tuesday amid Internal wrangling over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ succession.
Up to 1,400 invited members are expected to design the movement’s strategy for the next five years. The congress will also elect Fatah’s 23-member Central Committee, presided by Abbas, and its 132-member Revolutionary Council.
Abbas is said to be under pressure from Arab states to name a successor. Fatah officials, however, insist that the congress “is not about succession”.
“The congress will discuss and review the tools that have been used to achieve two goals: establishing a free and sovereign state and the right of return which remain our national goals,” said Husam Zomlot, Abbas’ strategic adviser and newly appointed ambassador to the United States.
“A major review should be about bilateralism and successive Israeli governments’ insistence to use negotiations as a tool to expand and reinforce the occupation and colonisation,” Zomlot told Al Jazeera.
The congress, according to Zomlot, will also address strategic alternatives, including the issue of internationalisation of popular resistance, of boycott and sanctions as well as resorting to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Formerly led by Yasser Arafat, Fatah remains the dominant party in both the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), which led the Palestinians to the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993 and 1995, and the PA (Palestinian Authority). The latter was created as a provisional government as part of the Oslo process, which envisaged a five-year interim period to pave the way to final status negotiations.
But some analysts have expressed concern about the timing of the congress, with political tensions running high; while others have pointed to the need to forward-plan towards Abbas’ succession to avoid a power vacuum that could lead to serious destabilisation and the imposition of outside agendas. The 81-year-old Palestinian president was recently hospitalised with heart problems, and his term in office officially expired in 2009.
Abbas is both limiting the number of people who can attend, including cutting out longtime Fatah members, and replacing them with people who will simply say 'yes' to Abbas and his failed policies.
But while Zomlot insists the congress is not about succession but rather about “submitting each commissioner’s report” and assessing their work, analysts have been worried about developments on the ground.
Middle East peace envoy Nikolay Mladenov said during a rare visit to Balata refugee camp in the Nablus governorate earlier this month that he was worried the situation in the camp could “explode”, referring to the clashes between Palestinian security forces and alleged criminals operating in the camp.
PA raids into Palestinian refugee camps, including Jenin and Al Amari, have intensified in the lead-up to the congress, as they did around the now-postponed municipal elections, originally planned for October 8.
On October 22, PA security forces broke up a meeting organised by a group of Fatah leaders in Al Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, which resulted in a number of arrests and ousters from the movement.
They are said to be supporters of senior Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, who was expelled from the movement over criminal allegations in 2011.
Dahlan, 55, was former head of the PA’s security services in Gaza and has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates since 2012. He is reported to be keen to make a comeback and challenge Abbas’ rule.
Arrests reportedly also took place among Fatah’s “Shabiba” youth movement, mostly based in universities.
“Fatah is in complete disarray,” lawyer and former PLO adviser Diana Buttu told Al Jazeera. “This congress should have taken place two years ago and would not have taken place at all were it not for Abbas’ attempts to further consolidate his power.
“Abbas is both limiting the number of people who can attend, including cutting out longtime Fatah members, and replacing them with people who will simply say ‘yes’ to Abbas and his failed policies.”
Observers point out that the last congress was attended by about 2,000 people.
“Today, more than ever, we are in need of new strategies and a political programme that will both unite Palestinians and challenge Israel’s rule,” Buttu said.
Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes the rise in violence is to be seen through the lens of the power struggle in view of the post-Abbas era.
“One can already imagine a concerted effort by Israel and other Arab states to try to push Dahlan forward,” Lovatt told Al Jazeera, adding that Dahlan remains the favoured candidate of Lieberman and the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE). The latter have been pressuring Abbas to let his arch rival return from exile and unify Fatah.
“If one wants to talk about a successor to Abbas, then it would be the moment for healing Fatah, and getting a candidate that would be acceptable to Abbas’ camp, and to Dahlan’s camp,” Lovatt told Al Jazeera, adding that he didn’t believe this was likely to happen.
Hamas, meanwhile, has allowed Dahlan to get a foothold in Gaza, and in return Egypt has loosened some of the restrictions on access and movement it imposed on the Strip.
“When we talk about the EU, there has not yet been any serious thinking at policy level about the day after President Abbas,” Lovatt said. “And so the risk is that one day we find President Abbas is no longer president, and everyone is left scrambling. And this could see the EU and other states falling back on the usual reaction to support the strongman candidate at the expense of democratic representation.”
Neither Abbas nor Dahlan fare well in Palestinian public opinion polls. According to the latest poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) and published at the end of September, 61 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, down from 65 percent in the previous three months.
Only 5 percent of respondents would want to see Dahlan replace Abbas following an election in which the current president does not nominate himself. Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti gets the highest consensus at 37 percent, followed by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh at 19 percent.
“For the Palestinians, Dahlan or Abbas – there is no difference, at least for the majority,” political analyst Hamada Jaber told Al Jazeera.
Alaa Tartir, programme director at Al-Shabaka, highlighed six main issues he thinks the Fatah leadership should consider during the congress if the political will existed.
These include creating a real distinction between Fatah and the PA; establishing clear accountability mechanisms to assess the performance of the leadership; caring about the cadre as much the elite care about themselves and their positions; bridging the trust and legitimacy gap as well as taking measures to reverse the damage that Fatah caused the Palestinian struggle, especially with its role in the intra-Palestinian divide and fragmentation; fighting the entrenched corruption from its root causes; and finally fighting authoritarianism instead of being complicit in sustaining it.
“These are doable policy prescriptions if the aim is to trigger genuine reform processes that yield to positive consequences on the Palestinian struggle for liberation and self-determination.”