Who Speaks for Palestine?

The last time Fateh, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), held a general convention was two decades ago in 1989 in Algiers. Next week, some 2,000 members of the organization, from both the territories and the Diaspora, are expected to descend on the town of Bethlehem in the West Bank to participate in the organization's Sixth Congress in an atmosphere mired with internal divisions, charges of corruption, and tales of espionage and betrayal fit for a John Le Carré novel.

Fateh's internal feud reached a pinnacle a couple of weeks ago when PLO Executive Committee and Fateh veteran member Farouq el- Qaddumi, a.k.a. Abu Lutf, claimed he had proof that President Mahmoud Abbas was part of a plot to assassinate the late President Yasser Arafat.

Meanwhile, recent talks mediated by the Egyptian government between Fateh and Hamas have failed to produce an agreement that would restore Palestinian national unity. For months each side has been blaming the other for the fissure caused inside the Palestinian house ever since Fateh lost the January 2006 elections to Hamas and the subsequent military takeover by Hamas of Gaza a year later.

In the past few weeks, blood between the Palestinian rivals has been as bad as ever, with Hamas arresting scores of Fateh people in Gaza and Fateh raiding Hamas' strongholds in the West Bank. Most recently, Hamas has threatened to prevent about 400 Fateh delegates from the Gaza Strip from attending the convention in Bethlehem, demanding the release of its members being held in Palestinian Authority prisons in the West Bank.

In return Fateh leaders have threatened Hamas with harsh retaliation, even including launching an all-out war against Hamas and its institutions in the West Bank. This would mean rounding up Hamas operatives, which could spark violent confrontations.

Ironically, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been facilitating the arrival of some the aging Fateh cadres from abroad; just recently Israel permitted one of Fateh's last holdouts of the Diaspora, Mohammed Ghneim, a.k.a. Abu Maher, to return to Ramallah. He plans to run for a top post at next week's convention, a move seen by many as intended to boost Mahmoud Abbas and help him consolidate his power within the organization.

A recent report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts the population of the Palestinian territories at about 3.9 million, with 2.4 million people in the West Bank and 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip. Of those, 25 percent are unemployed.

"We are starving and unemployed," Hazem, a stone-mason by trade yells over the phone. "and those donkeys [a Palestinian expression for idiots] are fighting over seats...Palestine is lost and they're fighting over seats."

Hazem, like many I've spoken to, have little expectations from Fateh's meeting next week. They are also angry with Hamas and believe that its leadership has been stubborn and uncooperative in resolving the inter-Palestinian feud.

On August 4, Fateh's members will vote for a new leadership, and a debate is supposed to ensue over its role as a resistance organization.

"Fateh will not be the same organization after the convention", according to Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip.

But Fateh has not been the same for decades. Most of its prominent members are now integrated in the Palestinian Authority living a bureaucratic life. As matter of fact, its umbrella organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is no more engaged in liberation than the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are engaged in defense. A friend of mine refers to the PLO as the PNO, the Palestine Negotiations Organization.

"The problem," he adds, "they are not even good at it [negotiating with the Israelis]."

Meanwhile, most Palestinians have lost faith in both Fateh and Hamas. For many, Fateh is corrupt, and Hamas is inept and ineffective.