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Fatah on shaky ground in the West Bank

July 06, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Routed in the Gaza Strip, the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is fractured and adrift at a moment when it is viewed by the outside world as the best hope for blunting the militant Hamas movement in the West Bank.

Once dominant in Palestinian affairs, the organization long led by the late Yasser Arafat is beset by a weak and aging leadership, internal schisms and a widespread reputation among Palestinians as corrupt, ineffectual and out of touch. Those troubles have some Palestinians wondering whether Fatah is more likely to lose the West Bank than to recapture the Gaza Strip from Hamas.

The crisis facing Fatah has deepened since Hamas crushed its forces in Gaza last month, leaving Fatah's authority limited to the West Bank. The United States, Israel and European allies have promised to bolster Abbas, a relative moderate, and his party as a way to isolate Hamas.

Fatah ruled unchallenged under Arafat, but was sent reeling after his death when it lost to Hamas in parliamentary elections in January 2006. Fatah's calamitous military defeat in Gaza has heightened worries among members.

"I was shocked. I felt that Fatah was gone everywhere, in the West Bank and Gaza," said Rashad Abu Hamid, 27, a Fatah activist in the West Bank town of Hebron. "We realized there was a big gap between the base and the leadership."

The defeat has injected Abbas, 72, with uncharacteristic assertiveness, which he displayed by firing the Hamas-led government, naming an emergency Cabinet and signing a decree to disarm militias.

In Gaza, however, Hamas has ignored the government's dismissal. And few here believe Abbas is strong enough to take the guns from militia groups, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is tied to Fatah but acts outside Abbas' control.

For their part, Fatah officials have responded to the Gaza loss by blaming one another, with little sign of serious reckoning at top levels over how to revive their beleaguered party. The leaders want early elections, though it is not clear that Fatah would win.

Hani Masri, a political analyst in the West Bank, said the Gaza defeat unmasked deep problems that bode ill for Fatah's lasting prospects in the West Bank, long the party's stronghold.

"It shows there is something wrong in leadership, administration, in the movement, in its forces, in its ideologies. And these problems exist in the West Bank," Masri said. "If Fatah does not learn from these mistakes, the West Bank will be similar to Gaza, even if it takes longer."

Masri said Fatah, long roiled by personality conflicts and turf battles, lost its sense of purpose after Arafat's death in November 2004.

"He was the glue for Fatah," Masri said. "When he left, the last thing uniting the movement was gone."

Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a Fatah spokesman, said the party was in shock after the bloody takeover in Gaza. But he said it would recover because of the appeal of its political program calling for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"It will be a long march," he said. "Fatah will not be defeated."

The resumption of Western aid will make it easier for Abbas to govern, but some Fatah members worry that his domestic standing could suffer if the Bush administration and Israel are seen as trying to prop him up.

Fatah was once a guerrilla movement and cornerstone of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but its dominance later made it virtually indistinguishable from the governing Palestinian Authority, created in 1994 by the Oslo interim peace accords.

The collapse of the peace process with Israel in the wake of the Palestinian uprising and disenchantment over graft and cronyism within the Palestinian Authority fed a voter backlash that enabled Hamas to win the 2006 elections under the banner of reform.

Fatah, which controlled the authority's security forces, resisted the power shift during months of on-and-off skirmishing in Gaza, Hamas' main base of support. But Fatah's aura of strength proved illusory, with top commanders fleeing Gaza amid the street battles and their fighting forces collapsing with stunning suddenness.

Fatah appears to boast a far more formidable armed force than Hamas does in the West Bank, but Fatah members fear that their party may disintegrate as a political force in the West Bank unless it takes steps to rejuvenate itself, starting with choosing new leaders.

"There is no vision for the future. There is no plan," said Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah lawmaker who has urged the party to hold a long-delayed convention to put fresh faces in the top roles.

The current leadership "will lead us to another big failure, which is the West Bank," said Fares, 45. "We will lose everything."

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