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Fatah Movement Adrift Between Past and Future

With Yasser Arafat's legacy both burden and driving force, the divided, long-dominant Palestinian party is set to lose parliament seats.

January 24, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — When the campaign for Palestinian parliamentary elections kicked off this month, it seemed only fitting that Fatah, the nationalist movement Yasser Arafat helped found nearly half a century ago, chose to hold its inaugural rally at his tomb.

Fourteen months after Arafat's death, the iconic leader still casts a long shadow over Fatah's political fortunes.

Fatah, whose name is a play on the Arabic word for "conquest," has little to gain but potentially a great deal to lose in Wednesday's balloting for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the first general election in which it has faced significant opposition. That Fatah will be shorn of seats is certain. The Islamic militant group Hamas is expected to garner at least one-third of the vote.

Some Palestinian voters embrace Fatah as the last link to Arafat, who is revered as a symbol of Palestinian statehood aspirations. But many others are repelled by what they see as the lingering imprint of the Arafat era -- rampant corruption, the chronic inability to build and sustain the institutions of governance and a complex entanglement with gunmen who claim to serve the Palestinian national cause but answer to no one.

"Fatah was about one man, and it hasn't yet found a new path for itself," said Abdullah Awad, a columnist who regularly excoriates the ruling movement in the state-sponsored Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam. "And it's hard to say whether it will."

In the months following Arafat's death, the internal schisms the late leader had always managed to quell with his particular brand of lavish patronage and raw intimidation have surged to the fore. In the Gaza Strip, armed men claiming loyalty to Fatah regularly seize foreign hostages, who are usually freed after a short captivity, and dozens of times have overrun government buildings, with offices of local election commissions the favored target.

So bitter was the strife within the movement that it appeared for a time that Fatah would be unable to agree on a list of candidates to face off against its most powerful opponent, the well-organized and disciplined Hamas.

Ambivalence could be the watchword for the list of candidates Fatah eventually put forward. It tried to placate party stalwarts while yielding ground to a restive younger generation.

In the No. 1 spot is Marwan Barghouti, a firebrand populist who is serving a 30-year prison sentence in Israel in connection with five murders during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Before being jailed, Barghouti sought to cultivate ties with Israel and simultaneously position himself as a reformist.

But others in top spots are inextricably associated with Arafat's rule, including such figures as Umm Jihad, the widow of one of the late leader's closest associates, and former Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, who is seen as embodying Fatah's "old guard" of comrades in arms from Arafat's decades in exile.

For the past 11 years, Fatah has been nearly synonymous with the Palestinian Authority, a quasi-governing body in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that was created under the auspices of the Oslo peace accords. In its early years, the Authority enjoyed international legitimacy -- and a flood of funding from a world eager to ease the Palestinians' plight.

But since the intifada began more than five years ago, Fatah has squandered much of that goodwill. Convincing evidence tied Arafat to the gunmen of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia that sprang up in the early days of the uprising and embarked on a grim competition with Hamas over who could carry out the bloodiest attacks on Israelis.

In this campaign season, public expressions of support for Fatah tend to telegraph an air of rote dutifulness rather than genuine enthusiasm.

An otherwise sparsely attended rally in a cavernous, chilly hall at party headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah last week was enlivened by the presence of dozens of schoolchildren, echoing a favorite tactic of Arafat, who would often order schools let out to pack Fatah rallies with youngsters.

If Arafat is remembered for his theatrical gestures, his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is best known for his determinedly sober demeanor. But Abbas has been a problematic standard-bearer for Fatah.

In office one year, he has made sporadic attempts at reform but has been unable to rein in the Palestinian Authority's bloated bureaucracy. He has sought to make the case to his people that pragmatism and negotiations would bring greater dividends than an armed struggle against Israel but managed to pry almost no political concessions from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who now lies in a coma.

Last week, Abbas devoted much of a meeting with reporters in Ramallah to denying Israeli news reports that he was clinically depressed.

Even the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer did little to boost Fatah's standing among Palestinians, in part because it was a unilateral step on Sharon's part, and in part because few Palestinians have seen improvement in their daily lot.

"Things are even worse than they were a year ago," said Suleiman Khawarik, a part-time taxi driver. "Fatah is more worried about its internal problems than the problems of the people."

As the election clock ticked down and Hamas' poll numbers rose, Fatah's leaders resorted to a rare tactic: saying they were sorry.

"Fatah admits there were mistakes in the past, and apologizes to our people for them," a senior leader, Samir Masharawi, said at a Gaza City rally Monday, the last day of formal campaigning. "We cannot allow a few corrupt figures to discredit us."

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