RAMALLAH, West Bank — The opening night of the Seventh Fatah Congress — which was hyped as the event that would usher in a new age for the Palestinian party currently ruling the West Bank, and perhaps see a possible successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas crowned — was both mystifying and dull, revealing, perhaps, that it was put together to delegitimize certain Fatah members rather than as the democratic measure the UN praised it for being.
The highlight of Tuesday’s opening night was supposed to be Abbas’s speech, which would set a new direction for Fatah and chart a new course for the entire Palestinian national movement for years to come.
But after two relentless hours of speeches by a variety of minor non-Palestinian politicians, through which the crowd began to slowly stream out of the auditorium or doze off, the 81-year-old Abbas decided on a whim he would deliver his speech another night.
In attendance were 1,322 Fatah delegates, scores of imams, members of the anti-Israel ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta, priests both Christian and Samaritan, and at least five Arab Israeli MKs including Joint (Arab) List leader Ayman Odeh and MK Ahmad Tibi. Only 11 percent of the delegates invited were female, a division reflected in the mostly-male audience.
During the conference there were laughs, such as when one of the snoozing delegates in the front row appeared on the large screen during the speech of Irish EU parliament member Martina Anderson, who is the head of the Palestine Committee in the EU.
When a member of the Chinese Communist Party began to speak in fluent formal Arabic, laughter quickly turned into great applause. He declared his “party was working to strengthen relations with Fatah.”
In a slew of lengthy speeches by other Arab politicians, including a former Egyptian foreign minister, a Tunisian politician and a representative for the Jordanian prime minister, all stressed how dear the Palestinian issue was to the Arab nations.
The crowd’s collective ears perked up when it was announced Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal would talk. The shock, though, quickly cooled off after it became clear Mashaal, who lives in Doha, would not be giving the speech, neither in person nor even by satellite. Instead, a surrogate, a firebrand imam, read his speech to the audience. The speech contained nothing new, but “Mashaal” repeated a recent talking point that his Islamist movement “will do whatever needs to be done” in order to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
The most high-level invitee to talk during the opening night was Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East Process. He opened by calling Fatah “the soul of the Palestinian people, just as the Palestinian people are the soul of the Arab nation.” This won him applause. A bit of balanced diplomatic-speak, “Never give up until the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. A state that lives in peace, in security and mutual recognition with Israel,” was met with silence.
Mladenov’s speech revolved around the importance of democracy, lauding the congress itself as a democratic measure vital to the success of the Palestinian cause.
But the real story of the congress, according to Grant Rumley, research fellow at the Defense of Democracies, was those who weren’t invited.
“The biggest impact of the conference happened before the conference even started,” said Rumley.
While the congress is three years overdue according to party regulations, many speculate Abbas’s abrupt call to convene it was a move to bolster his position and fend off his political rival, former Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan, currently in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
During the five-day confab, the party in control of the PA will elect its 23-member central committee — in which Abbas serves as president — and its 132-member revolutionary council, considered Fatah’s parliament.
Fatah members associated with Dahlan were not invited to the congress, essentially eliminating their legitimacy and voice within Fatah.
Rumley, who attend the congress, said Abbas is seizing the chance to close ranks while “his rivals are at their weakest and he feels little external pressure from the White House to reform internally.”
Like the excluded Dahlan supporters, the press also felt wronged by the congress.
The scores of journalists — Israeli, Palestinian and some from major Arab news stations — had their cellphones confiscated by security before entering the event, causing a sense of panic among some of the reporters and rendering others useless.
The sudden and unanimous reelection of Abbas as the head of Fatah, Tuesday night’s most important event, took place as the media was locked away in a “press club” they were shuffled into as soon as they entered the headquarters compound.
After a short press conference, in which a Fatah spokesperson promised Abbas’s speech that night would be the “most important” of the five-day congress and would introduce Fatah’s plan to bring the Palestinian national movement to the “next stage,” the media was kept in the press club for a total of three hours, with no access to the Fatah delegates.
From the press club, the media was then led directly into the main auditorium — in a capricious manner; some were allowed to take their bags with their laptops and some were not. The press was then forced to spend the next few hours standing or sitting on the floor in the back, again kept away from the Fatah delegates.
After Abbas suddenly announced he’d rather not talk that night, the scores of already irked journalists, who had endured five hours of waiting, quickly packed up and left.