Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

After Fatah's Bethlehem Conference

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Update from AIJAC

August 12, 2009
Number 08/09 #03


This Update contains some comment on the outcome of Fatah's sixth general assembly in Bethlehem, which ended yesterday with, I think it would be fair to say, mixed and ambiguous results for peace prospects in terms of both the platform adopted and the people elected to the party's central committee.

First up, Jerusalem Post Arab affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh looks at the platform and rhetoric at the conference, which emphasised the group's desire to maintain a status as a "national liberation movement". He says many Palestinians are viewing the party as living in the past, adopting almost the same platform as in the last meeting in 1989, re-affirming old slogans, and even creating an inquiry into the death of Yasser Arafat (while already declaring Israel guilty). He sees this performance as jeopardising any opportunities Fatah has to re-invigorate itself and present as a credible alternative to Hamas. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. More discussion of problematic aspects of Fatah's by-laws comes from Palestinian columnist and Washington Institute scholar Mohammed Yaghi. More on some of the resolutions passed in the assembly is here.

Next up, Barry Rubin discusses in detail the 18 people elected to Fatah's Central Council, which included more new faces and people from the younger local leadership than most analysts expected. Nonetheless, he says it is not true that this is a peace-oriented leadership or a great victory for some sort of reformist "young guard" which he argues does not exist as a unified group. He calls particular attention to the role of Abd al-Mahir Ghuneim, overwhelmingly re-elected, and already being promoted as a successor to PA President Abbas, but very much a hard-liner. For Rubin's dissection of the rest of the Central Council, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Fatah women are angry that no women were elected, while Avi Issacharoff of Haaretz praises the democracy Fatah apparently demonstrated in the vote, as does former PA Minister Ziad Abu Zayyad.

Finally, looking at the other side of the Palestinian political divide, Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy takes on claims that Hamas is signalling a readiness to reach a two-state resolution in various statements made to the Western media. He says that while the rhetoric has indeed changed to Western media sources, if you look at what Hamas is actually doing - in terms of terrorism, radicalisation of Palestinian society, and who it is placing in leadership positions - it is clear that this does not represent any significant change in Hamas policy. He also notes that Hamas has now moved into making films glorifying their terrorists - not a positive sign. For his full look at where Hamas is today, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said the Hamas-Fatah rift is more damaging to the Palestinians than Israel. Meanwhile, Israeli strategic thinker Yigal Henkin argues for changes to the way Hamas is being sanctioned.

Readers may also be interested in:


Analysis: How Fatah has evolved into the Palestinian Ba'ath party

Khaled Abu Toameh

THE JERUSALEM POST , Aug. 10, 2009

Fatah's sixth General Assembly has shown that the 44-year-old faction is still not ready to transform itself from a revolutionary movement into a governing body - one that cares about establishing institutions and infrastructure for the future Palestinian state.

Instead, Fatah seems determined more than ever to maintain its status as a "national liberation movement."

In light of the conference, many Palestinians are beginning to draw parallels between Fatah and Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. As far as they are concerned, Fatah remains part of the problem and not part of any solution.

The fiery rhetoric of the delegates and the signs and graffiti on the walls of the conference hall in Bethlehem are testimony that Fatah continues to live in the past and not in the present.

Moreover, most of the resolutions that were adopted by the 2,000 Fatah delegates appear as if they were taken directly out of the fifth General Assembly that was held in Tunis two decades ago.

The conference is about to conclude its meeting by endorsing almost the same political platform that has been accompanying Fatah since its founding.

Delegates spent more time talking about the past than the present or future. They chose to blame Israel and Hamas for almost all the miseries that have hit Fatah and the Palestinians in recent years.

The delegates spent more time attacking Israel and Hamas than discussing the reasons behind Fatah's defeat in the January 2006 parliamentary election and its expulsion from the Gaza Strip a year later.

For some time during the conference, one got the impression that Israel and Hamas were responsible for Fatah's financial corruption and incompetence.

Had it not been for the security fence and the construction in settlements, Fatah would be less corrupt. And had it not been for Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, Fatah would have succeeded in turning the Palestinian territories into the Middle East's Hong Kong.

In short, everyone is to blame for the miseries of the Palestinians and Fatah except for Fatah.

Instead of forming committees to look into ways of reforming Fatah, injecting fresh blood into its veins and restoring its lost credibility among a majority of Palestinians, the delegates preferred to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the death of Arafat.

Why is there a need for such a commission if Fatah has already (and unanimously) determined that Israel was behind the "assassination" of the Palestinian leader? And why establish a commission of inquiry into the defeat of Fatah in the 2006 election when every Palestinian knows that Hamas won that vote largely because of the state of financial corruption and anarchy under the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority? Most of the Fatah officials who appeared before the gathering spoke and acted as if they were still in the battlefields of Lebanon and Jordan.

In scenes reminiscent of the last Fatah conference 20 years ago, old slogans such as "Revolution Until Victory," "Long Live Palestine" and "Fatah Will Liberate Palestine" were issued by almost all the speakers who took the podium.

Political resolutions adopted by the conference also served as a reminder that Fatah has not changed much despite the Oslo Accords and the departure of its founder and leader.

Leaving no room for doubt that Fatah is not headed toward moderation, one resolution stated that the faction "remains committed to its status as a national liberation movement whose goal is to defeat the occupation and achieve independence for the Palestinians. Fatah is part of the Arab liberation movement."

Regarding the issue of armed struggle against Israel, Fatah chose ambiguity over straight talk. Aware of the sensitivity surrounding the use of the explosive term - armed struggle - and to avoid a clash with US and European donors, Fatah is now talking about its "right to pursue the resistance" against Israel "in all methods and forms." To Western audiences, Fatah leaders can always argue that they are actually talking about a "peaceful resistance" where Palestinians, together with Israeli and international activists, hold weekly demonstrations and marches in protest against Israeli policies and measures.

On the other hand, the Fatah leaders can always defend their decision to replace the armed struggle term with the need to win the backing (and money) of the West. In addition, they can also explain that the resistance they are talking about includes the right to resort to armed struggle against Israel.

Fatah after the conference remains the same Fatah it was before the meeting in Bethlehem. The Fatah leadership did not even see any need to provide its delegates with a report about the financial and administrative performance of the faction over the past 20 years. Why bother to do so when Israel is continuing to build in settlements and when Hamas retains its tight grip on the Gaza Strip?


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Fatah Congress Election Results: Quite Different From What You Will be Told

By Barry Rubin

The Rubin Report, August 11, 2009

At the Fatah Congress meeting in Bethlehem, eighteen people were elected to the Central Committee of the group which rules the Palestinian Authority and will determine if there is going to be peace with Israel.

Four more will be appointed by PLO and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who will also serve as the committee's chief. Only two (three when Abbas is added) who will continue from the old Committee. So indeed this is a generational transition and a transition from returnees who were in Tunis to indigenous West Bank people.

The fact that only one member is from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip--though that area contains almost half of all Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority--will no doubt cause trouble later.

We will be told two things about this election: that this is a peace-oriented leadership (not true) and that this is a great victory for the Young Guard (misleading).

This is indeed a significant and relatively democratic election (remember, though, that between one-third to a majority of the delegates were handpicked by Abbas).

Also keep in mind that there is no unified "Young Guard." In fact, it might be said that there are no more than three people who belong to any given faction capable of coordination.

Moreover, while this is almost a wholly new committee, at least 15 of the 22 members will be old-style leaders (presuming Abbas will appoint such people to the four seats whose nomination he controls). To give another example, it's true that Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Fatah grassroots' group on the West Bank, was elected. But not a single one of his followers was added to the committee.

Come to think of it, despite all this talk about the Young Guard, how many fit this category? Well, basically, Dahlan, Rajoub, and Barghouti, all men whose main experience has been with fomenting violence. The more I think about it, this whole ""new generation" and passing of the torch stuff is a fraud.

Far from being an electoral revolution, only two of those elected--Barghouti and Shtayyeh--can be considered at all critical of the Fatah establishment.

On balance, I would say it is slightly more moderate than its predecessor but the difference should not be exaggerated. For example, there are at least four members of the 18 who are capable of leading a war on Israel. Another four--including Fatah's probable future leaders--are extremely hardline. At the same time, though, there are also a number of individuals who have many Israeli contacts and who can pick up a phone and call or be called by counterparts.

There are a wide range of views from hardline to relatively dovish. Nevertheless, this is neither a group that will make peace with Israel nor one which will ally with Hamas. In other words, this is a group which Israel can work with on status quo issues but not on a comprehensive agreement.

But there is one aspect of this result so dangerous that it might outweigh everything else. At number one with two-thirds of the vote--a remarkable sign of popularity--is Abd al-Mahir Ghuneim. He is increasingly being spoken of as Abbas's successor.

Ghuneim is an unrepentant hardliner, an open opponent of the Oslo agreement. If he becomes the leader of Fatah--and hence of the PA and PLO--you can forget about peace. Violent conflict becomes far more likely. Watch this man: he is the future of the Palestinian movement.

The people everyone will be watching are the four guys with their own base of support, three security agency heads--Muhammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, Tawfiq Tarawi--and West Bank grassroots' leader Marwan Barghouti. Since Barghouti is in an Israeli prison, however, he will probably play a smaller role. It is easy to call these three leaders of a Young Guard but remember they are all personal rivals, and that's what's most important.

There are four real hardliners: Abd al-Mahir Ghuneim, Salim al-Zanoun, Abbas Zaki, and Nasser Kidra. Zanoun is the former head of the Palestine National Council who rejected changing the Charter to accept Israel's existence; Zaki is an old-style Arab nationalist. Kidra is seen as representing the legacy of his uncle Yasir Arafat.

There are two who can be called moderate: Nabil Shaath and Muhammad Shtayyeh.

Then there are Abbas's supporters who could all be called members of the "Old Guard": Saib Erikat, Azzam al-Ahmad, Hassan al-Sheikh, Tawfiq al-Tirawi, Othman Abu Gharbyeh, and probably Muhammad al-Madani. He can presumably also count on Nabil Shaath.

This is not a group willing to make concessions to get Hamas into a partnership. A Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is not going to happen.

Is this a group that will return to armed struggle? This is possible though they are not eager to do so. Dahlan and Rajoub are realistic about Palestinian military weakness, though Barghouti is probably more eager for confrontation. If Ghaneim becomes the leader, however, Fatah could revert to the Arafat era.

Mahmoud Abbas will head the committee.

1. Abd al-Mahir Ghuneim, 1338 votes. Reelected

2. Muhammad al-A'loul, 1112 votes.

3. Marwan Barghouti, 1063 votes, 50 years old, imprisoned leader of West Bank grassroots group

4. Nasser Kidra, Arafat's nephew; former ambassador to UN and PA foreign minister

5. Selim al-Zanoun, hardliner, head of Palestinian National Council. Reelected

6. Jibril Rajoub, 56 years old, former head of Preventive Security West Bank and national security advisor of Mahmoud Abbas.

7. Tawfiq al-Tirawi, head of General Intelligence. He has his own website.

8. Saib Erikat, Jericho notable who has been the PA's chief negotiator

9. Othman Abu Gharbyeh, 854 votes, old guard, close to Abbas

10. Muhammad Dahlan, former head of Preventive Security, Gaza Strip, badly defeated by Hamas in that group's takeover of the territory. This is reportedly about 50 percent of the Gaza vote. On one hand, this reflects his representing that sector but on the other hand many are angry for his mishandling of the war with Hamas.

11. Muhammad al-Madani, Bethlehem mayor

12. Jamal Mheisan,

13. Hasan al-Shaykh, secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank

14. Azzam al-Ahmad, was PLO ambassador to Saddam Hussein's Iraq from 1979 to 1994. Held 2 PA ministries and member of Legislative Council from Jenin.

15. Sultan Abu al-Einen

16. Nabil Sha'th, businessman and former foreign minister of the PA, moderate

17. Abbas Zaki (Sharif Ali Mashal), long-time PLO director of Arab world relations and now Fatah’s representative in Lebanon. Hardline. Reelected

18. Muhammad Shtayyeh, 638 votes, former director-general of PECDAR, private businessman, honest technocrat. Watch him: he is cast in the role of "watchdog" to oppose corruption and lack of transparency.

Not elected

19. Tayib Abu Rahman, 637 votes, Arafat's veteran office director

20. Ahmad Qurieyeh (Abu Ala), 636, relatively dovish former PLO negotiator


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Score one for ‘Hamaswood’

From Matthew Levitt


Middle East Studies at Harvard,  Aug 11th, 2009


Hamas, which recently created a production company and released its first major film production glorifying the life of a master terrorist (view the Arabic trailer here), has scored its first major public relations coup. In a new article on the website of Foreign Affairs, Michael Bröning (director of the East Jerusalem office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) cites the group’s recent downplaying of the relevance of its own charter as a telltale sign that Hamas is turning around or even “growing up.” To be sure, the rhetoric of Hamas leaders has visibly changed in public statements. But in focusing on these statements alone, Bröning misses the real point: Hamas’s words have changed, but their actions have not.

Hamas cannot be judged on the basis of its choice of vocabulary alone. Neither the relevance of each and every part of the Hamas charter (which Hamas leaders have expressly refused to revoke or update) nor the public statements of its leaders deserve as much weight as what the group actually does in judging whether or not it has truly evolved. The approach of solely examining what the group says, rather than what the group does—the approach upon which Bröning has relied—dangerously disregards Hamas’s actions on the ground.

True, in recent interviews, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has offered to cooperate with U.S. efforts to promote a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, indicated a willingness to implement an immediate and reciprocal ceasefire with Israel, and stated that the militant group would accept and respect a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But the conciliatory tone of this hardline Hamas leader, who personally has been tied to acts of terrorism and is himself a U.S.-designated terrorist, is belied by the group’s continued violent actions and radicalization on the ground, as well as the rise to prominence of violent extremist leaders within the group’s local Shura (consultative) councils. Hamas’s activities of late appear to be diametrically opposed to the thrust of Meshal’s statements.

Continued terrorist activities:
Despite talk of a ceasefire and pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, continues to engage in terrorist activities. Shooting attacks are still common along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, including the firing of rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells of the kind that rained on Israel just the other day. In late July, two Qassam Brigades operatives were killed in a “work accident” while placing explosives along the border fence near the al-Buraij refugee camp in central Gaza. A few days later, Israeli defense officials revealed that Hamas has been digging tunnels—often used by the group to smuggle weapons and conduct kidnapping operations—next to UN facilities, including one near a UN school in Bait Hanun that had recently collapsed. The placement of the tunnels near UN facilities was purportedly intended as a preventive measure against an Israeli attempt to destroy the tunnels.

Meanwhile, over the past several months, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have seized at least $8.5 million in cash from arrested Hamas members who plotted to kill Fatah-affiliated government officials. Palestinian officials reported that some of the accused had “recently purchased homes adjacent to government and military installations, mainly in the city of Nablus” for the purpose of observing the movements of government and security officials. Security forces also seized uniforms of several Palestinian security forces from the accused Hamas members.

Radicalizing Palestinian society: For Hamas, mutating the predominantly ethno-political Palestinian national struggle into a fundamentally religious conflict is critical to the group’s ideology and its continued ability to inspire Palestinians to reject compromise or peaceful solutions to the conflict. Recently, Hamas embarked on a large public relations campaign using culture and the arts to glorify violence and demonize Israel. In a telling example, Hamas produced a feature-length film in 2009 that celebrated the life of Emad Akel, a leading Hamas terrorist who was killed by Israeli troops in 1993. Written by hardline Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, Emad Akel was first screened in July 2009 at the Islamic University in Gaza City and described by Hamas interior minister in Gaza Fathi Hamad as the first production of “Hamaswood instead of Hollywood.”

In addition, despite Meshal’s statements, Hamas’s continues its campaign of radicalization targeting Palestinian youth. This summer, more than 120,000 Palestinian children attended Hamas-run summer camps that focused not only on Islamic teachings, but also on “semi-military training with toy guns.” Hamas campers recently staged a play reenacting the Gilad Shalit abduction before an audience that included Hamas officials such as Usama Mazini and Sheikh Ahmad Bahar.

Militants elected to leadership positions: Hamas’s ongoing radical activities are particularly apparent in its willingness to place its most militant members in positions of power. This year, Hamas’s local Shura councils held elections to determine who would move into leadership positions. Three local councils under the aegis of the Majlis al-Shura, the group’s overarching political and decisionmaking body in Damascus, represent Gaza, the West Bank, and Hamas members in Israeli prisons. This last council completed a five-month-long election process in July 2009 that resulted in the appointment of Yahya al-Sinwar, described as the founder of a Hamas security agency who is serving a life sentence, as president of the prison Shura council. Many other Hamas operatives involved in terrorist activities were placed as council members, including:
Abbas al-Sayyed, the mastermind of the March 2002 Park Hotel suicide bombing that killed 29 people and left 155 seriously wounded.
Salah al-Arouri, a founder of the Qassam Brigades in the West Bank, who served as both a recruiter and commander for Hamas terrorist cells.
Abd al-Khaliq al-Natsheh, Hamas’s spokesman in Hebron, where he reportedly was the interlocutor between Hamas members who wanted to carry out suicide attacks and the leaders of Hamas terror cells within the Qassam Brigades.

In the August 2008 elections for Gaza’s Shura council, for example, Hamas hardliners dominated as well.

As Hamas’s activities on the ground make clear, the group’s tactical flexibility cannot be mistaken for strategic change. Even in his recent interviews, Meshal was clear that Hamas has not rejected terrorism, but has put it on hold due to current circumstances. “Not targeting civilians,” Meshal explained, “is part of an evaluation of the movement to serve the people’s interests. Firing these rockets is a method and not the goal.” In the context of discussing the sharp drop in Hamas rockets fired at Israeli civilian population centers, Meshal added, “The right to resist the occupation is a legitimate right, but practicing this right is decided by the leadership within the movement.”

Even as Hamas advances a public-relations blitz for tactical gains, the group continues to advance its strategic goals through ongoing terrorist activities, robust radicalization, and the election of militant hardliners to leadership positions. Hamas’s policies are evidenced not only by its words, but also by its deeds and actions. Michael Bröning had the right idea when he advised policymakers to “study recent Hamas policies and the movement’s performance on the ground.” If only he’d taken his own advice.