By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 14, 2006
QALQILYAH, West Bank -- The party that has led the Palestinian national cause for more than four decades is bracing for the loss of its unchecked authority in elections this month, uncertain about what real political opposition could mean for its future or for the prospects of peace with Israel.
Fourteen months after the death of its founding leader, Yasser Arafat, the Fatah movement is fracturing along generational lines and losing support over its failures in governing the territory Palestinians envision as their state. Growing lawlessness, a sinking economy and corruption among its senior leaders have cost Fatah to an extent that will be measured Jan. 25 in the Palestinians' first parliamentary elections in a decade.
Fatah's divisions have been a boon to the disciplined Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. For the first time, the party at war with Israel is extremely likely to join the politically weak and financially destitute Palestinian Authority, established under a Fatah-led peace process that Hamas has always opposed.
Public opinion polls suggest that Fatah will retain its hold on what has been a compliant institution under Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. But, in its first national race, Hamas could take more than a third of the legislature's 132 seats, putting it in a strong position to push its opposing views on peace, security and the role of Islam in political life.
"Fatah lost its glue with Arafat's death, and now it's a puzzle with 2,000 pieces," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank. "The whole system is going to change. We'll have a parliament that acts like a parliament, with blocs, majorities and minorities. Finally you'll have an opposition with the ability to question and criticize the way decisions are being made."
That would seem to be a positive step in the evolution of Palestinian politics from one-party rule to a more pluralist system. But Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, and its campaign platform vows resistance to any post-election move to disarm its military wing. Abbas, who is both Fatah's leader and the Palestinian Authority president, has promised to do just that as part of his plan to bring Hamas into the political mainstream.
Hamas is not a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Fatah-dominated agency that manages issues of peace with Israel and is also headed by Abbas. But a significant Hamas minority in parliament could prompt Israel to cut off relations with Abbas, who has called for a renewal of peace talks. Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told President Bush on Thursday there could be "no progress with an administration in which there are terrorist organizations as members."
The change of fortune for Fatah, which was trounced by Hamas in this economically depressed West Bank city's municipal council races last year, has exacerbated internal divisions. The split falls largely along generational lines, reflecting the vastly different experiences and outlook of the party's long-exiled elder statesmen and rising activists who have left the territories only for stints in Israeli jails.
Activists such as Qaddura Faris, a 43-year-old member of parliament who like many of his cohort speaks fluent Hebrew learned in Israeli jails, believes it is time for senior leaders to step aside. Asked in a recent interview if the old guard's political role was over, Faris said, "I hope so."
"What they have is the power of legitimacy, a magic word around here," said Faris, who is favored to win a seat from the Ramallah district. "Our list is not the list we should have. But everyone knows Hamas should not be the alternative. I don't know if that's enough, but we'll see. And after the elections we'll figure out how to proceed."
Faris is close to Marwan Barghouti, 46, Fatah's most popular figure. A former leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah's armed wing, Barghouti was convicted by an Israeli court in 2004 of approving operations that killed five people in 2001 and 2002.
Posters of Barghouti raising his cuffed hands over his head as Israeli soldiers led him to prison, where is now serving five life sentences, are a fixture in many party offices. Despite Israeli pledges that he will not be released, Barghouti received the top spot on Fatah's national candidates list.
The new parliament will consist of people selected equally from the parties' national and local lists of candidates. Fatah tried to set its list by holding its first party primaries last month, an experiment that ended disastrously, with reports of widespread fraud.
Fatah initially submitted two national lists to the election commission, reflecting a split with the potential to divide the movement and doom its chances of winning a parliamentary majority. But Abbas brokered a compromise that resulted in a single list, which Fatah leaders, old and young, made a show of supporting during a campaign kickoff this month with balloons and speeches at Arafat's tomb in Ramallah.
"In essence we are heading toward the unknown," said Abbas Zaki, 63, a member of Fatah's influential Central Committee.
With ash-gray hair, thick-framed glasses and office walls charting an itinerant political life, Zaki is the embodiment of Fatah's old guard. The photos hanging in the waiting room of his cramped Hebron office tell the story of the movement's fading revolutionary cachet: a young Zaki with Fidel Castro in Havana, shaking hands with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi, inside the Kremlin.
But these days Zaki is more self-critical than nostalgic.
"Because our project has failed, Hamas is gaining new legitimacy in the Palestinian street," Zaki said. "Palestine is not extreme. If Hamas wins the elections, it will be the end of our program."
The spreading violence in the territories, particularly Gaza, has shaken many Palestinians and undermined international aid and investment at a time when the governing authority is desperate for both. Citing security concerns, Israel has also refused to remove many of the military checkpoints from the West Bank and turn over cities to Palestinian security forces, as agreed to nearly a year ago. Fatah members say their candidates would benefit enormously if Israel loosened its hold there.
"Fatah is not doing a lot to help itself, and neither is anyone else," said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "Fatah is not capitalizing on areas where it could do much better."
According to Shikaki's polling, those areas include law and order, economics and managing a peace process with Israel. Hamas is favored by those most concerned about official corruption. But Fatah's popularity has followed the same downward slope as public opinion regarding peace with Israel, Shikaki said, a matter in which the party has a large political stake.
"There is a great deal of disappointment over where the peace process is from a year ago," Shikaki said, referring to the feelings of ordinary Palestinians. "The question is whether they believe achieving an agreement is possible at all. And when people don't think it matters one way or the other, they will look at Hamas or Fatah on other issues."
But here in Qalqilyah, a city of 43,000 farmers, merchants and unemployed laborers who once worked inside Israel, Fatah has a chance, even though the region is considered an emerging Hamas stronghold.
Hamas used its reputation for good government to win all 15 council seats here last year. It has since been spending money on roads, hospitals and a project to renovate the West Bank's only zoo, which was buzzing with visitors on a recent rainy morning. A city-funded natural history museum is rising near the giraffe pen.
Hashem Masri, the acting mayor, who won a council seat on Hamas's Change and Reform ticket, said the race for two district seats in parliament would be very close. In a pattern seen throughout the Palestinian territories, Hamas does well in the city, where corruption and militancy inspired by a worsening economy give it a natural base. But Fatah remains strong in rural areas, where clan relations and party history matter more.
"There was great participation in the municipal races, but I would say the participation in this one is only good," Masri said. "It's not going to be easy."