By Nabil Amr
Behind the bustle and bluster of the Sixth General Conference of Fatah lay some very serious discussions, kept secret by virtue of the agreed need for a period of calm in which each member of the Fatah clan could evaluate its situation before taking a position on the internal conflict. The time would also allow the groups to present their short- and medium-term goals.
Because Fatah is not a homogenous movement to start with, and many of the constituent groups share little in common except affiliation to the name, internal conflict is more serious than the national split with Hamas. That point alone is enough to explain the catastrophic failures that have shaken the movement to its core, causing the loss of its traditional influence across Palestine.
In the past, conflict within Fatah usually produced a public split leading to an irrevocable divorce between the dissidents and the main body and its then godfather, Yasser Arafat; this happened on a number of occasions. The most serious was the split which saw Arafat and his forces pushed out of Lebanon in 1983. It was Arafat's personal ability to gather supporters around him that saved Fatah and restored its position in the leadership of the Palestinian people.
Following the transfer of Palestinian leadership to Palestine itself, such splits are unlikely to occur again but they have been replaced by a struggle for position and influence inside Fatah. While he was alive, Arafat could keep a grip on them, but following his death pretenders to his throne have declared their position and objectives. The main beneficiary was Hamas; having won the Palestinian elections in 2006, it pre-empted Fatah's attempted coup d'état and expelled the group from Gaza.
The Fatah movement's internal conflict continued after it had lost the election, and been ejected from Gaza, its birthplace. Although a similar loss of influence on the ground in the West Bank has been compensated by having control of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah is not strong enough to feel confident about allowing new elections, even though it has driven its main competitor underground across the occupied territory. Even so, Hamas still controls much voting power in the West Bank and can thus control the election from its position of opposition; a coup without the need to use weapons.
Fatah relied on its ability to overcome these pitfalls through the Sixth General Conference intended to restore power and influence to the waning movement. A new generation of leaders could, it was believed, come to the fore, having been held back by political inertia and the influence of the traditional leadership.
The results of the internal elections at the conference were recognised not least because questioning their legitimacy would question the legitimacy of the movement as a whole. Changes in the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council will be given a chance to make progress and avoid the pitfalls of the past. Instead of the usual 100 days to effect change, Fatah has given its new leadership team 500 days to demonstrate that it can be successful.
The Sixth General Conference was invented to provide a safety net for those who fell in the elections, as it provided them with the option of joining an Advisory Board, a new framework allowing long-standing members to make a formal contribution to the development of Fatah.
Some have objected to the new structure even though the conference brought it into being after much discussion. Nobody knows if it will be a success or which path it will take; towards reconciliation or not? Moreover, some have called for yet another conference to overcome some of the gaps that appeared during the sixth get-together of the movement.
All of this coincided with a wave of leaks on the evolution of the internal conflict to the extent that talk surfaced about "internal coups" and some even proposed the release of black propaganda to cause division.
Fatah remains in the eye of the storm as a symbol of Palestine which began its slow death after the Gaza coup attempt. It remains the guardian of unity and pluralism – Arafat once boasted that Fatah is the sponsor of the democracy of guns and the guardian of national unity – but the occupation of the homeland continues regardless. Each passing day without Fatah taking bold coordinated steps makes getting out of its current impasse ever more difficult.
What is happening in Fatah is not all of its own making, but castles fall from within and internal conflict is very relative to outcomes, even more so than direct and outspoken opponents. Despite this, Fatah is not something that can be done without or replaced. If it is weak, everything it symbolises is weak; if it gets stronger, so too will Palestinian unity and national symbolism.
The author is a former Information Minister (2003) in the Palestinian National Authority. This article first appeared in Arabic in Asharq Al–Awsat in Arabic on 16 November 2010
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.