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Is Fatah heading towards a split?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Third R) attends the 7th General Assembly meeting of Fatah Movement at Palestinian Prime Ministry office Mukataa in West Bank on November 29 2016 [Palestinian Presidency / Handout - Anadolu Agency]
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Third R) attends the 7th General Assembly meeting of Fatah Movement at Palestinian Prime Ministry office Mukataa in West Bank on November 29 2016 [Palestinian Presidency / Handout - Anadolu Agency]

Days after the end of Fatah’s Seventh Conference, and Mahmoud Abbas’ success in excluding the team of his nemesis Mohammed Dahlan, there have been increasing rumours that the latter may have the last word; Dahlan may, perhaps, announce the establishment of a new Fatah movement. What are the chances that such a move would succeed; who would support it; and where would the regional powers and Israel stand with regards to this development?

The conference was held at Fatah’s headquarters in Ramallah and was chaired by Mahmoud Abbas, who holds three positions: President of the Palestinian Authority, President of the Central Committee of Fatah and President of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It no longer requires a great deal of thinking or analysis to say that he has succeeded in directing a powerful blow against Dahlan, who aspires to return to the movement from which he was expelled in 2011.

Abbas invited many delegations to attend the conference — more than 60: local Palestinian, Arab regional and international — which is something new for Fatah. The aim of gathering these delegations together was to renew the pledge to Abbas, through giving him a new term as president of Fatah for the next five years. On this occasion, a unanimous vote was required, rather than a majority, which made some people describe what happened as exceeding the capability of any previous Palestinian leader to buy people’s votes and attract cadres.

Perhaps what attracted attention to Abbas’ wish to get Palestinians on his side was his ability to get Hamas on board, even if temporarily, against Dahlan. Hamas has succeeded in staying neutral between the two rivals in recent months, but its presence at the Fatah conference, which was a first, was seen by Dahlan’s team as a sign that it was taking Abbas’ side even though the latter has not offered the resistance movement any goodwill signs or gestures. This might have included the release of Hamas detainees from PA-run prisons, or stopping the pursuit of its cadres in the West Bank.

Not only that, but Abbas also, uncharacteristically for him, showed clear stubbornness in rejecting Arab pressure to postpone the conference until he is reconciled with Dahlan. He insisted on going ahead without responding to those requests, which suggested that this could be a boycott that will prevail in his relations with the Arab world.

The Israelis hover in the background to the conference. It is no secret that there is a stalemate prevailing over Palestine-Israel relations, although security coordination continues and is intense. Interestingly enough, Israel gave all the required permissions to hold the conference, especially by allowing Palestinian, Arab and international figures to get to Ramallah without the inconvenience and bureaucratic delays it normally uses for the Palestinian Authority’s guests.

The conference is now over, the results are out; and so are the recommendations which point to one outcome — Dahlan lost heavily. Neither he nor his team expected this; they had worked day and night to derail the conference, but Abbas’ stubbornness meant that it went ahead, despite him knowing that it could cost him what’s left of good relations with the Arab region.

It was noticeable that Abbas’ speech, which lasted for more than three hours, did not mention Dahlan at all, either directly or indirectly, which signalled that he neither cares about his erstwhile colleague nor the attempts at mediation. This may have deprived Dahlan and his team of anything they could use to fuel a political or media controversy to hurt Abbas.

Two weeks after the end of the conference, Dahlan is still keeping quiet; he has not said anything to the media. His assistants, however, have not hesitated to hurl accusations against Abbas and the new Fatah leadership, and even threaten to challenge the legality of what happened in Ramallah. The most popular topic of conversation for his team, though, seems to have been about preparations for a new Fatah conference to respond to what has happened. This is considered to be an unprecedented threat that could cause a historic split in the movement by rebelling against the current leadership. At the same time, their hero has stayed away, which can be interpreted as a desire to plan for that conference away from any public noise.

The assumption that a new conference could actually be held poses a question about who would host it. This is a very important question. The host government would, in effect, be agreeing to split from Abbas and agreeing, by default, to a split in the largest Palestinian national movement; who would dare to do that?

It is no secret to say that Dahlan sought with all his might to get Hamas — the de facto ruling party in the Gaza Strip — to organise a number of movement-related events just before and after Fatah’s Seventh Conference. Although Hamas agreed at first for Dahlan’s supporters to organise some of these programmes, including the commemoration of the death of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, it retreated quickly. No one knows why, but it is clear that it doesn’t want people to say that the movement supported Dahlan in his internal conflict with Abbas.

Obviously, Hamas does not forget what Dahlan has done, both when he was active in the Student Youth Movement in the Islamic University thirty years ago and when he headed the Preventive Security Service and led a campaign to eradicate the Islamic movement in the nineties. At the same time, Abbas in the West Bank is neither throwing roses on the homes of Hamas members nor giving them good conduct certificates.

However, Hamas’s position on Dahlan may move beyond past differences to deal with current concerns and the future. The man has close ties with the ruling regime in Egypt, along with strong links to a number of Arab regimes that clearly declare their hostility towards the movement. It is probably no secret that support provided to Dahlan by such countries is conditional upon his elimination of Hamas, which controls Gaza and is a persistent headache to them as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is one thing to talk about Abbas’ frosty relations with Palestine’s Arab hinterland, but to say that regional countries would allow a historic split from Fatah is a completely different thing. In a clearer sense, capitals such as Cairo, Amman and those in some Gulf States, were hoping, and perhaps are still hoping, that their efforts towards internal Fatah reconciliation would succeed, although the chances are becoming slimmer by the day. They would still prefer reconciliation rather than being judged by history for sponsoring and accepting yet another rift between Palestinians.

Everyone still remembers that a number of Arab countries were home to Fatah from the date of its establishment. Hence, despite some tension and conflict, they will not be willing to sponsor disobedience or splits within the movement.

I happen to know that Dahlan asked Jordan to allow the convening of a parallel conference to Abbas’, but Amman did not agree. The government did, however, facilitate the passing of Fatah’s cadres to Ramallah to participate in the official conference. This means that the Jordanian authorities do not want a repeat of what happened in the seventies — “Black September” — between the army and Fatah fighters.

As I write, Dahlan’s biggest supporter Egypt has neither approved nor rejected his proposed conference. Cairo probably still wants to maintain an open line of communication with Abbas, following its policy of brinkmanship with him, and it doesn’t want to be held accountable for a split that may swamp Fatah. Egypt’s foreign policy has enough failures; it is in no hurry to add another one.

It may end up that Dahlan has no other choice but to try to hold his conference in Gaza, where he has so many supporters, and he could get others through the Rafah border crossing. However, Hamas, as I have said, would not be very enthusiastic about getting caught in the middle of a Fatah conflict, so a Gaza conference for Dahlan is unlikely.

Finally, no one knows how these internal developments will affect the future of Fatah. Will they hasten a split, or has the idea of a split already been eliminated, in the light of Abbas’ insistence on excluding Dahlan — apparently forever — from Fatah? The coming days may give Abbas and his potential successors — of whom the main candidates are also in a public feud with Dahlan — more control of the movement.

Translated from Aljazeera.net, 18 December 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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