The changing of the Guard at Fateh

It has taken 20 years, but the Palestinian Liberation Movement (Fateh) has finally held its sixth general conference allowing for a much-needed influx of new blood into the movement. The conference, which opened in Bethlehem on August 4, registers many historic firsts. It is the first conference of a liberation movement to be held within an area it is hoping to liberate from a foreign occupying force. It is also the first time that Fateh holds a conference on Palestinian territory. In addition, it is the first time that Fateh holds a conference in the absence of its founder and long-time leader Yasser Arafat.

Naturally any organisation that has not provided any democratic mechanism for change and renewal outside the general conference tends to age and become monotonous and ineffective. This ageing and dullness became most evident in the past few years as the leading Palestinian resistance organisation lost the 2006 legislative elections and then lost its presence in the Gaza Strip, both to Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

The conference is certain to witness a major change between the old and new guard. Perhaps this change of guard was best reflected in a political cartoon by Khalil Abu Arafeh, the leading cartoonist of the widest circulating Palestinian daily Al Quds newspaper. The cartoon shows four older Palestinians and an older woman (at the end), all of whom have the Palestinian keffiyeh (one whose total face is covered ) and are in the process of giving the Palestinian flag to another group of five Palestinians. The new guard, however, includes two women, one of whom is wearing Western dress, while the men are dressed in jackets and trousers (one with eye glasses), with thin black and white chequered scarves around their necks. The new guard are all smiling as they prepare to take up the new responsibility.

It can be argued that the new guard will be looking for diplomacy and popular resistance (as reflected in the change of clothing in the cartoon), rather than military struggle, despite the statement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In the opening session of the congress the leading secretary general of Fateh said that while diplomacy is the Palestinian choice, armed resistance is a legal option that is guaranteed by international law.

Despite the cartoon, however, the change of guard will not be complete. Abbas is certain to continue to lead the movement, at least in the near future. Marwan Barghouthi, one of the leaders of the young guard, is still held behind Israeli bars and will not be able to directly take up his position in the new grouping.

Changing the guard from the older to the younger generation was also parallelled by a shift in the centre of power from the outside to inside the occupied territories. It is true that this geographic change started after the return of Arafat and his team, but this is the first time that this change has been made official. Perhaps one of the last hold outs like Farouk Qadoumi, along with others who have resisted returning until the end of occupation, will also see his days in Fateh and the PLO ended with this conference. Holding the sixth conference in Bethlehem has permanently sealed this change. Such a change will have an important effect on Palestinian political thinking. As long as the movement had its leaders in various Arab countries, they were susceptible to pressures from this Arab country or that. The various Arab axes have all but disappeared now with the vast majority of the leadership based inside Palestine. Ironically, the Gaza debacle provided the major exception to this new rule. The denial by the powers to be in Hamas to allow members of the Fateh congress to depart for Bethlehem provided the biggest drama up to the last minute of the conference and will no doubt shape the challenges facing the new guard.

While the old guard always had to balance between the different Arab countries, the new guard will have to find a workable solution with their Islamic counterparts. Opinions vary from those who call for a tough position towards Hamas to those who call for a softer approach. Another major challenge facing the new Fateh guard will be how they deal with the duality of membership in the Fateh leadership and assuming ministerial positions within the Palestinian Authority. Again the positions vary from those calling for Fateh leaders to abstain from ministerial roles and those who feel that there is no reason why they can’t have a parallel leadership presence.

It will take some time for some of these questions to be answered. But the one question that will surely be answered this week is that the leading Palestinian liberation movement will surely be younger and different as a result of its sixth congress.