Saturday, December 23, 2006

A tired Fatah struggles

"RAMALLAH, West Bank - Fatah, once the fiery Palestinian party of kaffiyeh-wearing Yasser Arafat and shadowy guerrilla fighters, today is limping around on a cane, suffering from tired blood.

Routed at the polls, outmaneuvered on the streets, accused of chronic corruption and lacking a unifying agenda, Fatah is struggling today to stay relevant.

Last Saturday, its leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, took a gamble to regain the party's momentum and to reverse its declining fortunes by calling for new elections. It is a maneuver that could easily backfire. Already, it has triggered several days of fierce fighting on the streets of Gaza between the gunmen for Fatah and its prime adversary, the Islamist party Hamas. That Abbas would take such a risk is a sign of what a parlous state Fatah is in these days, experts say. Secular, relatively moderate and committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel, Fatah is generally supported these days by the United States and Europe as a partner to bring peace in this part of the Mideast.

Iran-backed Hamas is well-disciplined, clear in its Islamic message, and unwilling to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. Hamas unexpectedly routed Fatah in parliamentary elections in January and, despite a crippling economic boycott, still enjoys a strong following on the streets.

Fatah, meanwhile, is adrift. "Right now, we don't have a strategy, we don't have a plan to deal with the occupation, to deal with Hamas, to deal with Europe or to deal with America," said Ziad Abu Ein, deputy minister for prisoner affairs for the Palestinian Authority, who counts himself, at 47, as a member of the young generation of Fatah long shut out from power. It is time, he says, for new blood.

But for the moment, there is little sign internal change is coming, and one of the reasons is Abbas himself. "He is change-resistant and risk-averse," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and former legal adviser to Fatah's parent organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Surrounded by external challenges, including conflict with Israel and a crippling economic boycott imposed by the West and Israel after Hamas entered the government, Abbas has avoided dealing with problems of corruption or the geriatric nature of his party, insiders say.

Fatah's 16-member Central Committee helps define the group's agenda. It has not elected new members in 17 years. Six of its original 22 members have died in the meantime and have not been replaced. The youngest committee member is 64.....

...But inertia and corruption are hardly Fatah's only problems. "If Fatah had been able to deliver a Palestinian state, corruption ten times as bad would have been a third-rate issue," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan. But Fatah has not delivered a state and has been badly outmaneuvered by Hamas in its effort to do so. Between the signing of the Oslo accord in 1993 and 2000, Fatah as the dominant party in the Palestinian movement became, in effect, the Palestinian Authority, the governing body for the West Bank and Gaza. In the course of that, experts say, Fatah lost its identity.

Fatah's whole persona up until 1994 was built around its slogan, "Revolution Until Victory." Then it gave up its revolutionary role to enter into negotiations with Israel that were supposed to lead to two states existing side-by-side....

By 2000 and the reoccurrence of the intifada, Fatah the revolutionary party was gone but Fatah the nation-building party had not emerged. "Between 1994 and 2000, the number of Jewish settlements doubled, checkpoints were increased, Jewish roads went up in the territories and Palestine started to shrink," said Buttu. Fatah had nothing to show for its dealings with Israel.

Hamas stood in the wings, according to Buttu, and "was able to say 'I told you negotiations would never work.' Hamas chose then to resist violently and this is very popular with the people." Meanwhile, Fatah continued to try to negotiate with Israel and got nowhere......"

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