For Fatah, vote poses crucial test

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- They did their best to remind voters of Fatah's storied past.

Organizers of the rally for Fatah - the party of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, the party that is the core of the Palestinian government - blared decades-old fighting songs from loudspeakers. Speech after speech recalled generations of Fatah members wounded, imprisoned or killed during countless clashes with Israel. A poster of Arafat loomed above the stage.

But Fatah leaders could not hide the fact that with a week to go before the Palestinians' first legislative elections in 10 years, the party is in trouble, at war with itself and facing the prospect of losing its once unquestioned leadership of the Palestinian cause. The economy is in ruins. Lawlessness prevails. An elder generation of Fatah leaders has been corrupt and ineffective, failing to bring stability or peace.

It was left to Nassir Daoud, one of the younger, lesser-known Fatah candidates for parliament, to give the crowd a sobering reminder of the woes of Palestinian society.

"Damn the father of those leaders who serve their own interests!" Daoud told a startled crowd of several thousand Fatah supporters. "If I win, may I be damned if I serve myself!"

A nervous-looking party official tapped Daoud on the shoulder, telling him his time was up. But Daoud continued: "This is a decisive battle for Fatah to be or not to be. Either Fatah wins or we will be gone with the wind."

In Arafat's era, such dissent was rare. A shrewd and calculating shepherd, Arafat used charisma, awards of money and position, and ability to manipulate rivalries to keep competing Palestinian factions together as one flock.

But Arafat's death in 2004 left a void. Abbas, his successor, is uninspiring and refuses to use Arafat's strong-arm tactics to maintain unity, allowing a brewing generational conflict between loyal old-timers and young members frustrated with the corrupt senior leadership to rise to the surface.

No one is benefiting more from tensions within Fatah than Hamas, the radical Islamic group that is participating in legislative elections for the first time. Calling itself the "Change and Reform" party, Hamas pledges disciplined, corruption-free governance.

Opinion polls indicate that Hamas could win one-third of the seats in the Palestinian Authority's 132-seat Legislative Council, second to Fatah, but giving it a strong say in negotiations with Israel and a platform to introduce Islam into Palestinian politics.

A strong showing by Hamas worries Israel and the United States, which consider the group a terrorist organization responsible for scores of suicide bombings and attacks on Israelis. Despite repeated calls to disarm Hamas, Abbas contends that the only way to tame the group is by encouraging it to join the political process.

Many Israelis are unconvinced, believing that the rising popularity of Hamas could lead to a new era of Palestinian attacks. What is most worrying to Israelis is that Hamas officially remains committed to Israel's destruction. Unlike Fatah, Hamas rejects the Oslo accords, signed by Arafat in 1993, which recognize Israel's right to exist and create a framework for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Yet, given a choice, many Palestinians are turning to Hamas out of frustration with Fatah.

During local elections last year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Hamas won seats in many key towns, leaving Fatah paralyzed by infighting between the party's elder and younger generations.

"We are in a real crisis in Fatah," said Ahmad Abbas, spokesman for the Fatah campaign in the West Bank. "We should work as one unit because we are facing a great threat from Hamas."

But the party has traveled a self-destructive path. On one side are the senior leaders who were in exile and rose to power when they returned with Arafat to the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, in many cases taking prominent positions in the Palestinian Authority and enriching themselves. On the other is a restless, younger generation born and raised in the West Bank and Gaza, who, in many cases, spent time in Israeli prisons. Many are educated, fluent in Hebrew and well qualified for senior government positions, yet are shut out by older Fatah members reluctant to surrender power.

"Fatah has been hijacked by a group of individuals who are self-serving and politically and economically corrupt," said Hashim Ahmed, a political scientist at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank. "There are many qualified, talented, skillful members of Fatah who have been marginalized and left out."

Unable to resolve its differences, the party initially submitted two lists of candidate for the election Jan. 25, a split that might have handed Hamas a victory.

In a compromise, the party agreed to a single list headed by Marwan Barghouti, a popular, 46-year-old Fatah leader serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in the deaths of four Israelis and a foreigner. As part of the agreement, Barghouti was joined on the list by other new faces from the young guard while older members were dropped.

Some Fatah officials were so outraged at being left off the list that they sent gunmen to storm election offices in Gaza, where the fighters exchanged gunfire with hundreds of members of the Palestinian security forces.

"The division is still there, and the only thing that will end this division is a party conference," said Sa'd Nimr, Barghouti's campaign manager.

Fatah leaders have put off convening such a conference out of fear of losing control. More than a generational split, the conflict is also over whether to continue armed resistance against Israel. Abbas, the leader of the older generation, has embraced a political solution, urging militants to lay down their arms and trust elected leaders to negotiate a final settlement with Israel. But Barghouti's supporters are skeptical.

"Nothing has moved in real terms regarding the ease of life for the Palestinians," Nimr said. "From the point of view of the young guard, it's stupid to hand over weapons before we start negotiating."

The infighting over Fatah's direction does not worry Mohammed Lutfi, a candidate from Ramallah for the legislative council, who aligns himself with the party's older generation. Lutfi recalls joining Fatah soon after it formed in the 1960s. Arrested by Israel, he spent 18 years in prison before being expelled in 1986. Lutfi returned with Arafat in 1994. A long-serving member of the party leadership, he insists that tensions come and go and that the party always survives.

"The conflict in Fatah is not a deadly one," he said. "It is a conflict over interest and power that makes the crisis. The solution is that all generations should be represented in the hierarchy."

But the prospect of surrendering Fatah's role as the largest and most powerful party is terrifying to members.

To widen its appeal among potential Hamas voters, Fatah has emphasized its role as a fierce foe of Israel. Posters show Barghouti's handcuffed hands raised in defiance, and campaign materials include the coat of arms from the now-defunct Fatah military organization Al Assifa, which was established in the 1960s to harass Israel with commando attacks.

"Fatah is trying to be seen as much more militant in terms of the armed struggle," said Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari, an analyst of Palestinian affairs at Israel's International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

By comparison, he said, Hamas is trying to play down its militant activities and emphasize its political credentials.

During the Fatah rally, speakers emphasized the candidates' militant activities during the decades of struggles. One candidate was enthusiastically noted for his role in killing several Israeli soldiers in front of a bank in the 1970s.

Qadora Faris, 43, a Fatah candidate from Ramallah who spent time in Israeli prisons, stirred the crowd with tales of bravery by Palestinian fighters. He recalled a lone Palestinian sniper armed with a World War II-era rifle who in March 2002 shot seven Israeli soldiers and three settlers at a checkpoint, killing them all. The incident embarrassed Israeli forces, showing the effectiveness of Palestinian guerrilla tactics despite Israel's high-tech weaponry.

"Never yield," Faris said. "Fatah was the one who started the revolution. We were the ones who threw the first stones. We were the ones who shot the first bullets. Go to every house and tell the story of our struggle."

Faris' speech brought supporters to their feet. But whether there is enough public enthusiasm is another question.

Unless Fatah wins over Palestinians again, members are likely to be disappointed by election results, which might be just what the party needs, analysts say.

"There has to be a strategic shock in order for Fatah to wake up from this state of affairs," said Ahmed. "If the cost is the Palestinian Legislative Council election, then let it be."

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