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November 28, 2016 No.
1283

Fatah's Seventh General Conference Will Convene Under The Shadow Of The 'Abbas-Dahlan Struggle

By: C. Jacob*

Introduction

On November 29, 2016, Fatah's Seventh General Conference will take place at the Palestinian Authority presidential headquarters in Ramallah, three years later than stipulated by movement regulations. The date of the conference is no coincidence; it was on November 29, 1947 that the UN passed its Partition Plan for Palestine, and in 1977 this day was declared by the UN as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.


Emblem of the Seventh Fatah General Conference (Source: Facebook.com/Official.Fateh.1965)

The conference comes as 'Abbas faces tremendous pressure from Palestinian elements and from the Egypt-led Arab Quartet countries to appoint a deputy or successor, for two main reasons: first, so that there will be no political vacuum should he disappear from the scene, and second, to prevent Hamas from gaining control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), because by law, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) chairman is next in the line of command if the president is incapacitated - and at present this role is filled by 'Aziz Duwaik  from Hamas.[1]  This pressure has been manifested by Egypt's sponsorship of conferences on its soil held by supporters of Dahlan 'Abbas's bitter rival and his possible successor,[2] and by the demands presented to 'Abbas by Arab League secretary-general Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit along with former secretaries-general Amr Moussa and Nabil Al-Arabi, during a visit to Ramallah, that 'Abbas accept the Quartet's proposal to appoint a successor for him and that he agree to a reconciliation within Fatah - demands that 'Abbas rejected out of hand.[3] In order to advance such a reconciliation, the Egyptians agreed to host all the Palestinian factions in Cairo after they met with representatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad earlier in November 2016.

Senior Fatah officials stated that the upcoming Seventh Fatah General Conference may select a deputy for 'Abbas only for his role as Fatah chairman, and that it is not authorized to appoint a deputy for him for his other roles as Palestinian president or PLO chief. Fatah Revolutionary Council member Amin Maqboul explained: "According to Fatah regulations, a deputy for the movement's chairman is chosen from among the members of the Central Committee. This is nothing new."[4] Fatah Central Committee member 'Azzam Al-Ahmad said: "[According to regulations,] the movement's chairman has a deputy. Since that is so, why is there a need to bring up this subject as long as this is stipulated in the regulations? Today, Abu Maher Ghneim is deputy movement leader, and before him, in the time of the martyr president Yasser Arafat, it was Khalil Al-Wazir Abu Jihad."[5] PLO Executive Committee secretary Saeb Erekat also said that 'Abbas needed no deputy: "President Arafat died without a deputy in place, and the PLO Executive Committee chose 'Abbas as president; Fatah's Central Committee convened and chose 'Abbas [as movement leader]; and the people went to the ballot boxes and chose 'Abbas as PA president."[6]

Even though Fatah had already discussed holding the conference this year, 'Abbas decided quickly, in early November, that it should be held now, with the aim of leveraging it to completely remove Dahlan from the movement. Dahlan, for his part, tried, with the backing of the Arab Quartet, to prevent or postpone the conference, but failed; additionally, his supporters were later eliminated from the list of conferees. But this is a temporary victory at best for 'Abbas, and he owes it to the PA. Because he acted against the wishes of the Quartet, he may pay for this in his relations with it, and particularly with Egypt. In the intra-Palestinian arena, the tense 'Abbas-Dahlan relations could develop into a full-blown rift between the two camps that will make the Palestinians' situation even worse than it is today.

Two days before the conference Dahlan associate Sufyan Abu Zaida called on all Fatah members who had  been eliminated from attending the Seventh General Conference to raise their voices and protest against the injustice done them "so that the movement is not stolen from them."[7]


'Abbas, left, and Dahlan (Source: Assabah.com.tn, March 14, 2014)

In the meantime, the 'Abbas-Dahlan rivalry escalated, as reflected in exchanges of accusations between the camps, by the conference earlier in November held by Dahlan supporters in the Al-Am'ari refugee camp near Ramallah, and in the PA security apparatuses' ongoing harassment of Dahlan supporters, leading to violent clashes in which innocent bystanders were killed. In order to neutralize Dahlan and his supporters, 'Abbas took additional steps, including stopping the payment of wages for PA employees who support Dahlan, slashing the list of Seventh General Conference conferees so as to keep Dahlan's men away, as mentioned, from the 2,500 of the previous General Conference to 1,400, obtaining permission from a Palestinian court to remove PLC members' immunity so that Dahlan's men in the PLC can be targeted; and having security apparatuses preventively arrest their own personnel who are associated with Dahlan.

According to Fatah officials, the Seventh General Conference is expected to discuss a political plan and the impasse in the political process; methods for fighting Israel; the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation; Fatah's internal regulations; and conducting a self-examination in the movement, to focus on an assessment of achievements, conclusions from mistakes that were made, and injecting young blood into the movement leadership.

The disputes in the movement have contributed to lowered expectations about what the General Conference will accomplish. Several Fatah officials said that its being held at all is in itself an achievement, and added that keeping Dahlan and his supporters out and repelling efforts by half of the Arab countries to reinsert him into Fatah, with the accompanying message that the Palestinians are the masters of their own fate and that their decisions are independent, all constitute actualization of several of the conference's goals. Regarding Fatah's political plan, the officials said that it would focus on continuing diplomatic activity to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and on expanding the popular resistance.

This report will focus on the aims of Fatah's Seventh General Conference, on what it is expected to achieve, on the political program that will be discussed at it, on the appointment of a deputy/successor to 'Abbas, and on the rivalry between the camps of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 'Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan, who could end up as 'Abbas's successor.

Conference Goals And Expectations

Fatah officials, especially from the 'Abbas camp, have widely discussed the conference's nature, goals, and expectations in light of the changes in the world and especially in the Arab countries, and in light of the dire state of the PA. Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub said: "I estimate that Fatah will emerge from the conference strong, consolidated, and united, and that it will be able to continue to bear the responsibility with which it is charged."[8]

However, there is little expectation of far-reaching changes in Fatah, as attested to by Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Ashtiya: "When the conference doors are locked, [we will know] that having successfully convened is an achievement in itself."[9] Similar comments were made at a November 20 meeting for Fatah secretaries from West Bank districts.[10] Former Fatah leader in Bethlehem Awni Al-Mashni wrote in an article that the Fatah conference will not focus on the political plan, since there will be no real changes there, nor on personnel changes, since most Fatah members have similar views. The most important aspect of the conference, he said, is that it was convened without submission to outside pressure, even pressure from Arab countries, adding: "Holding the conference closes a chapter and opens a new one, and if it had not been convened, the rift in the movement would persist."[11]

Fatah Central Committee member 'Azzam Al-Ahmad said of the upcoming conference: "One of the purposes of the conference... is to stress Fatah's independent decision-making on internal Palestinian affairs and the Palestinians' non-intervention in the internal affairs of others, particularly Arab countries. This conference has special importance, particularly in the current situation. [The conference must discuss] putting its own house in order and must respond to the political questions that are on the agenda: How do we end the [Fatah-Hamas] rift? How do we end the occupation?... We must first and foremost discuss the general political state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the impasse of the peace process... The conference must provide the appropriate tools for tackling these questions. Straightening out the internal situation in Fatah will make it quicker and easier to organize the general internal Palestinian situation, which is why the Fatah Central Committee decided to convene the Palestinian National Council a month after the Seventh Fatah General Conference."[12]

About other conference goals, Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Al-'Aloul said: "The conference is the beginning of the road to renewing the legitimacy [of 'Abbas and the PA institutions] and to introducing new blood [into the Palestinian establishments]." Ali Al-Musalmani, who was in an Israeli prison for 30 years, said: "The conference will support purging Fatah of the enemies of the national movement and of those who have harmed the movement and its history... The attempts by Muhammad Dahlan, who was thrown out [of Fatah], to [negatively] impact Fatah's democratic process will fail. I will take this opportunity to call on the security apparatuses to confiscate the illegal weapons in order to stop those who are collaborating with the occupation and all those who are trying to act against the Palestinians [i.e. Dahlan's men]."[13]

Fatah Revolutionary Council secretary-general Amin Maqboul said: "One of the tools to revive the movement and its institutions is to inject new blood [into them], by means of turnover, rotation in the leadership, and presenting new initiatives and ideas to step up the activity in all echelons. The conference will set out a new policy based on assessments of past eras, presenting reports on them, demanding accountability, and outlining the next steps. It will highlight both failures and achievements."[14]

The Conference's Political Plan: Popular Struggle, Boycotting Israel, International Activity

One key topic at the conference will be the political process and the nature of the struggle against Israel. Fatah officials have noted that the plan set to be discussed will continue 'Abbas's policy of opposing militarized struggle while expanding the popular struggle; continuing the diplomatic activity at the UN, and delegitimizing Israel by means of boycotts and lawsuits against it at the International Criminal Court (ICC). In an interview with Al-Ayyam, Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Sha'ath expanded on this: "The political platform presented to the Seventh Fatah Conference is not a platform of negotiation, but it leaves the door open to return to negotiation if certain demands are met. Furthermore, it is a platform of nonviolent conflict that still focuses on popular struggle and international activity, and that sets out the movement's roles while focusing on a comprehensive boycott. It is the changes in the world, and the disasters in Arab countries, that are bringing us to focus on the political conflict with Israel, to unite, to rehabilitate our own home, to restore our economy, to bolster our steadfast position, and to constantly initiate conflict with the Israeli settlement enterprise. This is accompanied by international legal, diplomatic, and economic activity."

Sha'ath added: "The political plan that will be presented at the seventh conference is a continuation of the historic positions of Fatah... When peoples face hardship, they must believe that the difficulty will pass, and therefore we will build our country and not lose hope of [the right of] return, the restoration of our land, and the establishment of our state. When things are hard, an individual must start by putting his own house in order; therefore, some of the political plan deals with reorganizing Fatah, reviving, uniting, and guiding the movement, and maintaining it as a national liberation movement until we attain freedom. The plan focuses on restoring national unity and Palestinian democracy by means of presidential and Legislative Council elections, thus restoring the legitimacy of the PLO and democracy in the organization by rebuilding it as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Likewise, [the PLO] should [again] be given the authority to deal with fundamental political problems and with foreign affairs, because the PA focuses on domestic issues, while the PLO represents all the Palestinians in the world.

"The plan states that we must confront Israel, and not adapt to the Israeli enterprise or sink into the delusion of the political process, which Israel has destroyed and constantly opposes. We have accepted the French initiative and the [Saudi] Arab initiative, but our plan sets specific demands for renewing negotiations that have been mentioned more than once by President Mahmoud 'Abbas: ending [the construction in] the settlements, [implementing] the UN resolutions, [setting] an international framework and timetable for the international conference [i.e. the French initiative], starting a debate on the permanent arrangement, sketching out borders, and recognizing [a Palestinian] state."[15]

Discussing the nature of the struggle against Israel, Muhammad Ashtiya stressed the aspiration to repeat the 1987 First Intifada: "One of the most important results of the conference will be to address the 'smart popular resistance' - the experience of the Palestinians during the First Intifada, when the most important characteristic was mass participation and successfully attracting the whole world's attention. In our assessment, today's popular resistance is not of the desired scope, even though the necessary tools for it exist. Therefore we must utilize them as part of 'smart popular resistance.'"[16]

'Abbas, Dahlan Camps Accuse Each Other In Arafat's Death

As noted, the conference is taking place against the backdrop of the bitter 'Abbas-Dahlan rivalry, which has led to mutual accusations peaking with 'Abbas's statement that he knows who helped assassinate Arafat, and Dahlan's statement that it was 'Abbas who had freed an Arafat bodyguard detained by Palestinian security forces on suspicion of being an accessory to the assassination. Samir Al-Mashharawi, a Fatah official in Gaza who is close to Dahlan, demanded that 'Abbas "stop accusing others of assassinating President Yasser Arafat... because he ['Abbas] himself is in the circle of suspects." Al-Mashharawi added that Arafat, who never took the option of armed struggle off the table and always carried a weapon along with an olive branch at the UN, could not be compared to 'Abbas, during whose term of office "there has been a decline in the Palestinian people's fighting spirit, and who has turned the olive branch into a cudgel to bludgeon the opposition." He added: "Jibril Rajoub does not want the intra-Fatah reconciliation and has done all he can to thwart it."[17]

The 'Abbas camp, for its part, struck back at Dahlan and his supporters. Mahmoud Abu Al-Haija, who was appointed speaker of the conference, and editor-in-chief of the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, said that schemes by Dahlan and his supporters to sabotage the conference had been thwarted, and Mahmoud Al-'Aloul added that all Dahlan supporters had been removed from the list of conferees.

Dahlan Camp Harshly Critical Of Their Exclusion From Conference

The Seventh General Conference conferees, whose numbers were, as noted, slashed from 2,500 to 1,400, now include: members of Fatah's Central Committee, Revolutionary Committee, and Advisory Committee; Fatah members from West Bank and Gaza Strip districts and from the Palestinian diaspora; representatives of public institutions and professional unions; National Security personnel; ambassadors and diplomatic staff; PLC members; district governors; representatives from the president's office and PA offices; representatives of prisoners; businessmen and experts in various fields; and representatives of youth and women.[18]

The exclusion of Dahlan supporters and the inclusion of 'Abbas's, including his sons Tarek and Yasser, triggered furious responses from the Dahlan camp. Dahlan himself told the Ma'an news agency: "There is no such thing as the 'seventh conference.' [What is happening is] a marginalization [of Fatah members] and an attempt to cause division. What is happening here is a clear coup [from within] the palace. The conference and the procedures planned in advance are nothing but an attempt at a coup against Fatah's history and tradition, and a pathetic attempt to eliminate pluralism in Fatah and push the movement towards strict Stalinist traditions and values that no one, no matter who, can impose."[19]

On November 23, Dahlan supporters in the PLC, some of whom have been removed from Fatah institutions, held a press conference in Ramallah in which they criticized the conference and its organizers. Fatah Revolutionary Council member Haitham Halabi called for a sit-in in front of Arafat's memorial on the day of the conference, to protest against how the conference had been organized and against the exclusion of senior Fatah members from it, and warned that this would perpetuate the rifts in Fatah.[20]

Criticizing the exclusion of Dahlan's supporters from the conference, and the security apparatuses' preventive arrest of Dahlan's associates, Sufian Abu Zaida wrote: "There will be no surprises in the preparations for the celebration [i.e. the conference] at the presidential headquarters under the weapons of the presidential guard and security apparatuses directly subordinate to [the guard]. For this celebration, which is wrongly called the Seventh Fatah General Conference, the conferees have been meticulously selected, after security apparatuses screened the names carefully to ensure the desired results for 'Abbas and several other interested parties. We were not surprised when hundreds of field operatives and Fatah officials of all ages and from all areas, whether military men, leaders of the prisoners, youth, and women's movements, or ambassadors, were replaced by ostensible fighters or ostensible Fatah members who have no role in the movement and have never declared their affiliation with it. They have also never been arrested and never waged any struggle in the name of Fatah or of any other faction. This does not contradict the fact that there are dozens of leaders at the conference whom we respect and very much admire."[21]

 

* C. Jacob is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

[4] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), November 20, 2016.

[5] Al-Ayyam (PA), November 22, 2016.

[6] Almasryalyoum.com, November 22, 2016.

[7] Amad.ps, November 27, 2016.

[8] Al-Ayyam (PA), November 23, 2016.

[9] Alhaya.ps, November 18, 2016.

[10] Wafa.ps, November 20, 2016.

[11] Maannews.net, November 15, 2016.

[12] Al-Ayyam (PA), November 22, 2016.

[13] Wafa.ps, November 2, 2016.

[14] Alhaya.ps, November 17, 2016.

[15] Al-Ayyam (PA), November 21, 2016.

[16] Wafa.ps, November 17, 2016.

[17] Amad.ps, November 15, 2016.

[18] Paltoday.ps, November 17, 2016.

[19] Maanews.net, October 30, 2016. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6689, Muhammad Dahlan: I Don't See Myself As A Presidential Candidate - I Support Marwan Barghouti, November 23, 2016.

[20] Maanews.net, November 23, 2016.

[21] Maannews.net, November 22, 2016.