The Death of Fatah and the Future of Palestine

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On its 48th anniversary, the storied political party grapples with endemic failure and no way forward.

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Palestinians take part in a rally in Gaza City marking the 48th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement, on January 4, 2013. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

RAMALLAH -- After nearly a half-century of existence, Fatah has left many loyalists and critics alike pondering its accomplishments. On New Year's Eve, the Palestinian political party -- which has led the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for decades and currently holds the presidency of the Palestianian Authority (PA) -- celebrated its 48th anniversary. In Ramallah, a few thousand mostly young men marched across the West Bank city to the Muqata', the headquarters of the PA president and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas. The streets were lined with the party's younger supporters, some elderly veterans clad in military fatigues and several high-ranking members of the group's leadership who are based in the West Bank.

As the marchers converged upon the headquarters -- once a ravaged icon of the second Intifada, today it stands a revamped modern military compound -- many started to trickle away. Addressing the enthusiastic group that remained, Abbas, looking every day of his 77 years, spoke of Palestinian leaders of years past. He started with Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian figure unrivaled in his persona, then moved on to Abu Jihad and Abu Eyad -- both icons of Palestinian resistance -- and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas's late spiritual leader, whose group Fatah has been at loggerheads with since it wrested control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Abbas recited the litany of names as if lamenting his party's failure to deliver a unifying leader since Arafat to guide Palestinians through exceptionally troubling times: a moribund peace process, dire economic circumstances brought about by dwindling international aid, mushrooming Israeli settlements, and a political and geographical rift with the Gaza Strip.

Abbas recited the litany of names as if lamenting his party's failure to deliver a unifying leader since Arafat to guide Palestinians through exceptionally troubling times.

Besides the marching band and the rally, few people in town seemed aware, let alone interested, in the festivities. Discussion of the economy and the E1 Israeli settlement plan dominated TV and radio station talk shows and café conversations. On the domestic political front, Fatah hasn't been faring as well as should be expected on its home turf. During last October's municipal elections, only 54 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. Despite a Hamas boycott, Fatah was unable to present a unified front and many of its members broke with the party line by running on independent platforms.

During that election season, few running candidates spoke of resistance and liberation, instead focusing mainly on economic issues, services, and development. Palestinians have increasingly become frustrated with their volatile financial situation, which sent them pouring into the streets in protest a few months ago, only to be met by baton-wielding PA police officers. Many demonstrators report being detained for questioning by security services before they even reach Israeli checkpoints or military bases, prompting some to label the PA a tool for crushing internal dissent at best -- and Israel's security guards at worst.

There are several other issues on the table that Fatah has to address besides an angry constituency, but none as pervasive and urgent as the discord with Hamas. The feud has been lingering since 2007, punctuated by several attempts at reconciliation with Egyptian and Qatari mediation, all of which have failed to materialize. The recent between Hamas and Israel has ushered some conciliatory steps between the two Palestinian groups that so far only secured the release of many incarcerated members and loosened restrictions on public visibility. As a direct result of this, hundreds of thousands of Fatah supporters rallied in Gaza City earlier this month to commemorate the group's 48th anniversary. This was the first time since 2007 that Fatah has been allowed to publicly celebrate its founding in the coastal enclave, in a move some attribute to Hamas' newfound confidence in light of redefined regional dynamics in favor of political Islam.

But aside from authorizing festivities on each other's turf, the split has so far proved irreconcilable. Hamas still retains hold of the Gaza Strip while Fatah controls the West Bank, and the two maintain different visions of how to resist Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. Without a unified Palestinian front or a future strategy, Fatah has been going it alone, using whatever means it has available outside of armed resistance. Each of its strategies has failed, calling into question its viability.

The UN Status Bid

Months ago, Abbas described the pitch to upgrade the Palestinians' UN status to non-permanent observer as "the only way to address the assault of settlement activity and to save the two-state solution." But in stark contrast with the hullabaloo of last year's bid for full statehood recognition at the international body, sentiments were a mixture of ambivalence and skepticism. While a feat in its own accord, some Palestinians dubbed it a publicity stunt aimed at shoring up legitimacy for the PA -- the governing entity backed by Fatah -- after years of outliving its mandate. Others were angry that the UN move meant giving up on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians questioned the benefits such a move would have on narrowing the chasm between the two groups.

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Dalia Hatuqa is a Ramallah-based writer who previously worked for Al Jazeera in Washington D.C.

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