From 29 November to 4 December 2016, the West Bank city of Ramallah was host to Fatah’s seventh general congress. The start date was no accident: 29 November is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
This congress was not like other congresses. On the one hand, it will determine the methods and political programme of Fatah, which is considered as the carrier of the entire national project. And it follows that its political programme will be considered as the political programme for the multi-party Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Fatah is the largest faction, and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Convening the congress was itself considered an important accomplishment due to the large number of challenges it has faced since the last congress in 2009. At the political level with Israel, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, had no real achievements to present. Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have foundered for more than two years, and Israeli settlements continue to devour new Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. More than 22 years have passed since the signing of the Oslo Accords, but the ‘lasting and comprehensive peace settlement’ they promised remains elusive. Further, the Palestinian issue has slipped down the international agenda, superseded by the wars in Syria and Yemen, the migrant crisis and terrorism concerns.
At the national level, the decade-long division between Fatah and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, shows no sign of being resolved.
But perhaps the most important challenge facing Fatah in convening its latest congress were the ongoing tensions between Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan, a Fatah leader who was dismissed from the movement in June 2011 and is considered Abbas’s main rival. Dahlan did not accept his dismissal and remained in continuous conflict with Abbas. The intensity of the accusations between the two men reached a head in early March 2014, when Abbas accused Dahlan of treason and political and financial corruption. Numerous attempts to mend the rift were unsuccessful, despite the intervention of the Arab Quartet – made up of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which presented a road map aimed at achieving two reconciliations.
The first is an ‘Internal Fatahite’, one that readmits the dismissed members under the leadership of Dahlan to the movement. The second is between Fatah and Hamas, ultimately leading to a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Despite the Arab Quartet threatening to stop financial support to the PA if Abbas refused to cooperate, Abbas denounced the Arab intervention in internal Palestinian affairs. Dahlan too refused to budge. Instead, he convinced the Egyptian administration of the necessity to convene two conferences for Palestinian political leaders and personalities, businessmen, civil society and village heads from the Gaza Strip, in cooperation with the Egyptian National Center for Middle East Studies, in order to lobby the positions of these Gazan figures in Dahlan’s favour. The conferences were held in October and November 2016 at the Ain Sokhna Red Sea resort, under the slogan ‘Egypt and the Palestinian Issue’, and were considered a turning point in the relationship between Egypt and the PA, which viewed the event as a gathering of the opposition.
President Abbas’s Speech
What was no doubt plaguing Abbas before the congress is that he would be described as ‘exclusionary’ and divisive. He was thus careful to invite more than 1,411 members to the congress, representing the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Arab states, especially Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, as well as delegates from Europe and the Americas. In addition, all the other political parties and movements, including Hamas, were invited. In total, nearly 60 delegations from 28 states were in attendance.
In contrast with previous Fatah congresses, which were characterized by intense disagreements among members over the political programme and liberation strategy, no attention was given at the seventh congress to the topic of political, economic and social programmes or even the national strategy. Rather, it focused on filling key positions in the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council.
Abbas was reelected head of Fatah for another term of five years without conducting a ballot or putting forward an opponent. His speech on the second day, which lasted more than three hours, unambiguously reaffirmed the political position towards Israel and Hamas.
His style and political approach of the last 12 years will not change in the coming five years, he said. Within this period, he emphasized a group of fundamental principles, which affirms the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the use of legitimate and peaceful resistance to end the occupation. He also emphasized the importance of widening the avenues of dialogue, and communicating with various elements of Israeli society, in a way that serves and reinforces the chances of achieving peace, based on international legitimacy and achieving a just solution to the refugee issue in accordance with UN resolution 194 and the Arab Peace Initiative.
At the national level, Abbas emphasized that there is no Palestinian state without Gaza, and underlined the necessity of completing the reconstruction of what the occupation had destroyed in its aggressive wars against Gaza. He went on to address the necessity of ending Palestinian division. He thanked the chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khalid Mashal, for his speech, which a Hamas leader in Ramallah delivered on his behalf. He also refused to call the bloody events in the Gaza Strip in 2007 a ‘coup’, which has been interpreted as a major step towards internal Palestinian reconciliation.
Nevertheless, the speech included clear criticism of Dahlan, without mentioning his name. Abbas once again rejected any Arab intervention in internal Palestinian affairs, and reaffirmed the importance of preserving the independence of national decisions.
It is notable that he spoke as a president of a state rather than as a president of a political party, and he addressed his speech to all the groups – the Palestinian people, the international community, Israel and Hamas – not only to Fatah and the other congress delegates. Also notable was the style of his speech, which was reminiscent of Arafat, which he has not previously used in his career.
Outcomes of the Congress
Arguably the most important political recommendation to come out of the congress was the convening of the National Palestinian Council within a period of three months, for the sake of reforming the PLO. It is likely that the Palestinian movements and political parties which are not yet included may join the organization, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Palestinian National Initiative under the leadership of Mustafa Barghouti. However, that will only be possible if reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is accomplished.
As for the elections for the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, there was a clear appetite among the members to run for these positions: around 70 members announced their candidacy for 18 Central Committee positions while more than 450 candidates stood for the 80 Revolutionary Council positions.
The final results of the elections of the Central Committee, which is seen as Fatah’s executive branch and top leadership body, largely maintained the membership of the most prominent names close to Abbas: 12 members retained their seats and six new members were elected, all Abbas loyalists. Of the four sitting members from Gaza, Nasser al-Qudwa was the only one to keep his seat. Only one woman was elected.
The Revolutionary Council elections were dominated by leaders from the West Bank. The Gaza Strip won 15 seats, and 11 women were elected.
The congress succeeded in form, but difficult tasks inevitably lie ahead. As Abbas put it in his closing speech, the congress had surpassed the smallest jihad and it now faces the greatest jihad.