Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Fatah members on Tuesday that “resistance” to occupation is still a legitimate option.
He was speaking at Fatah’s first general conference in two decades in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
“Although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance, legitimate under international law,” he said in a lengthy oration during the opening session of the conference. The term resistance is often used to encompass both violent and nonviolent means of struggle.
He said the Palestinian side is committed to the US-backed Road Map peace plan, but the Israeli side failed to uphold its obligation under the document.
The largest Palestinian political party, Fatah, is expected to elect two new leadership councils and approve a new platform at the three day meeting.
“We open the session here in Bethlehem the city where Jesus was born and the closest city to Jerusalem.”
“It is a miracle that Fatah is still standing strong in spite of all that has happened,” he said, hailing the meeting as a reunion after the last conference in Tunis in 1989.
Abbas’ speech also recalled earlier days of Fatah armed struggle against Israel, a fight which he said, compelled the “whole world to hear the voice of Palestine.”
Much of the speech was historical, highlighting specific moments in Palestinian history, including a 1981 truce between PLO guerillas and Israel that followed 15 days of clashes. He also recalled the 1988 Declaration of Independence passed at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Algeria, which he called a “brave decision.”
He also defended the legacy of the Oslo peace accords signed by his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, in the 1990s. Oslo itself did not fail, he said, but Israel forced it to fail. He also stressed that Oslo led to the birth of the Palestinian Authority.
Preceding Abbas' words was a speech from Fatah's Chief in the Mobilization and Organization Department, Ahmad Quriea'a. “We open this session with the honor of all Palestinian martyrs and the honor of our late president Yasser Arafat and their pure blood,” he said, before listing some of the Fatah members who had been killed fighting Israel in the seventies and eighties. Following the speech there was a reading from the Qur'an and the playing of the national anthem.
“Fatah is the mother of the dialogue and the owner of the homeland and victory,” he said.
Striking a note on Palestinian unity, he said, “We will always protect our nation and our homeland. We are keen on national dialogue and despite everything we will protect the Palestinian smile and hope and we say, ‘we are all Gaza and we are all one.’”
Several religious leaders unaffiliated with Fatah were present at the conference, including the Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Taysir Tamini, several Catholic priests and at least one member of the Greek Orthodox clergy.
Among the first topics on the agenda following the opening speeches will be a discussion of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, in which Fatah-backed forces were defeated in a brief civil war.
Sources also say the conference will address recent allegations that President Mahmoud Abbas was involved in a plot to kill Yasser Arafat. Fatah’s General Secretary, Farouq Qaddoumi, made the accusations in June, sparking a firestorm of controversy. Qaddoumi is not present at the conference and has not been nominated for a place on the Central Committee or the Fatah Revolutionary Council.
Abbas touched on both these issues in his speech, saying that “mistakes” made after Arafat’s death had led to Fatah’s “failure” in the 2006 elections it lost to Hamas, and the eventual takeover of Gaza.
Of the more than 2,000 delegates and observers crowded into the Terra Sancta school hall, half are from the West Bank. A few hundred came from outside Palestine. Some came from Gaza, even though Hamas authorities forbade them from attending. Some members voiced their concern over the last-minute boost in registration of delegates, from an initial planned 650, which ballooned to 1,550. When another proposed 900 were to be registered as Fatah voters, members in Gaza announced they might boycott the proceedings. The Central Committee approved only a fraction of the number. The issue of the boycott was subsumed, however, by the de facto Hamas-run government in Gaza travel ban in Fatah members.
Arriving in Bethlehem on Monday night, Abbas sought to strike a defiant tone, announcing that the conference would go ahead in spite of the Hamas travel ban in Gaza.
“On the eve of the conference, after 20 years, there is a lump in our souls that delegates from the Gaza Strip will not attend,” Abbas said at the Bethlehem Intercontinental Hotel. “However we will not be deterred from our stance, which matches that of the Arab nation and world.”
Regarding negotiations with Israel, Abbas said, “We want to uphold our rights – our rights based on international legitimacy – and we hope our neighbors will respond to the opportunity to achieve the peace that we all desire.”
“We hope our neighbors [the Israelis] will allow us to build a future of peace for our nation to live in security and stability,” he added.
Arab mediators failed to convince Hamas to allow Fatah delegates to the conference to leave Gaza for Bethlehem, where the meet will be held Tuesday, Fatah announced earlier on Monday.
Earlier this week Hamas had announced that all Fatah delegates who snuck out to the West Bank to attend the conference would be arrested upon their return to Gaza, as the Palestinian Authority refused to release Hamas affiliates in exchange.
Resistance is a legal matter that must remain aligned with international law, said Fatah sixth congress spokesman Nabil Amr following the close of the first day of the conference Tuesday.
“Political activity is one way of resistance,” he elaborated, stressing “we are not talking about armed resistance.”
Summing up some of the day’s main topics Amr said dialogue with Hamas would be studied “alongside our Egyptian brothers.” He said leaders at the conference felt “Hamas has crossed all limits especially when they prevented Fatah delegates from Gaza from attending the sixth congress.”
From now on, he added “Fatah will not accept any blackmail by Hamas, and will take any measures needed to protect Fatah’s interests and the Palestinian people’s interests.”
Amr also noted the large number of international and local religious dignitaries who came to observe the conference, and reiterated Fatah’s hope that the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council elections would rejuvenate the party.
Nominations for the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council will be made Wednesday.
Decisions made at the Fatah conference in Bethlehem could result in a third Palestinian Intifada (uprising), former Israeli security chief Avi Dichter warned the day before the conference began.
“Fatah's statements are clearing the way to what may eventually be the third Intifada,” he was quoted as saying by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in a story published late Monday. “Once you say that the fight will go on by all means necessary – anyone in their right mind understands that spells an armed conflict… Such a decision by the congress would send us years back.”
Dichter, the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s spy agency in the occupied territories, specifically expressed concern that the Fatah delegates assembled in Bethlehem would reaffirm the movement’s 1965 charter, which calls for the liberation of all of historic Palestine.
“What I find particularly disturbing is that it's the moderates that plan to have the convention vote on an article titled 'continuing the fight against Israel by all means necessary.' Sixteen years after the Oslo Accords, it's Fatah's way of saying they see an armed conflict as a legitimate way to conduct dialogue with Israel.
“If they intend to see that article through, they would be leading to the next armed conflict. A week ago they were still talking about a public fight, which could be construed as demonstrations, but over the past few days they have been talking about reaffirming the sections calling for a fight.”
Dichter, who is a member of the Knesset for the center-right Kadima party, also said he believes that the Palestinian Authority’s survival is contingent on Israel’s aide in fighting Hamas.
“If it wasn’t for Israel's vigorous actions against the terror activity in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinian Authority's leaders would be on the run, trying to flee Hamas, just like they fled Gaza. The future of the Palestinian Authority depends on it seeking peace with Israel,” he said.