'Stormy' start to Fatah's historic summit

Some of the 2,200 delegates expressed outrage at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s account of the party’s past 20 years.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, right, and Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki listen to speeches during the Fatah conference in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Tuesday. The Palestinians' Fatah movement convened Tuesday for its first convention in 20 years, trying to rise from division and defeat with a pragmatic political program and new leaders, in what its supporters hope will be the final push toward Palestinian statehood.

The first Fatah conference in two decades was off on Wednesday to what a senior Palestinian official acknowledged was a "stormy" start as some 2,200 party delegates wrangled over a variety of issues and showed reluctance to accept top-down decisions from the party's elite.

Foremost among these was a directive to accept the 51-page text of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's speech – which he took two hours to deliver at the opening of the conference on Tuesday – as the report of record explaining Fatah's progress to its Central Committee since they last met in 1989.

That move outraged members who said Mr. Abbas's speech left out too many key elements – including explicit mention of both Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas – and in any case did not take the place of a proper progress report.

"We had chaos in the discussion over this," says Sirhan Dweikat, who is Fatah's director of recruitment across the Palestinian territories. "We needed to talk about the positive things and the negative things. We refused to have the president's speech to be used as a so-called document, because he left too much out." Mr. Dweikat stood in a sliver of shade off Bethlehem's Nativity Square as the sea of Fatah delegates made their way up the hill from the conference center – closed to press except for a few key events – to lunch in nearby hotels.

"It's very difficult," he sighs, "to put 2,200 people together and be productive, when we haven't met for 20 years." Another delegate who was getting a ride to his hotel rolled down the window and said to a reporter, "No report, no conference," indicating vehemence behind demands for a fuller accounting of the past two decades of Fatah's leadership.

Not enough time to resolve problems

Nabil Amr, a top Fatah official who now serves as the Palestinian ambassador to Cairo, said the problems were being ironed out.

"Today was a stormy day," he told reporters while the delegates were taking their lunch break. There was plenty of time to solve the outstanding issues because there was no "deadline" for the conference to end, he said.

"We will not commit ourselves to two or three days," Mr. Amr said. "We're not guests here. This is our country, and we have no reason to rush to end it. The ceiling we need to reach is to achieve the key points on the agenda and electing new leadership."

On Thursday the delegates are due to vote for 21 members to serve on the more powerful Fatah Central Committee and another 120 for the Revolutionary Council. But with the numbers of participants having grown – the original goal was to cap participation at 1,500 – some are skeptical that it will be a fair fight.

Divided without Gaza delegates

"I think that the results of this conference is that the young people will be sidelined," says Omar Abu Sheikh, who at 35 is one of the youngest delegates to the conference.

Mr. Abu Sheikh, like many here, was concerned about having such a historic meeting without Fatah members from Gaza. About 400 Fatah activists wanted to come to the meeting, but were prevented by Hamas from leaving. Some smuggled themselves out, and there are concerns about whether they can return without being arrested and interrogated.

"The minute we accepted holding a conference without Gaza, we sent a message that we accept the state of divide," says Abu Sheikh, who is from the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

The demand that Fatah not give up on Gaza – which it lost control of in a June 2007 coup – was emerging as a key theme of the conference. Rank-and-file Fatah members are calling for a special commission on Gaza and demanding that it be "reunited" with the West Bank. (The two territories are not contiguous.) Fatah and Hamas are supposed to return to reconciliation talks under Egypt's mediation, but no date for a resumption of those discussions has been set.

"There seems to be a unanimous decision that Gaza must be present at this conference," Amr said. "If not physically, then at least morally, and in every other way possible."

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