Fatah party holds first in 20 yrs

BETHLEHEM:Fatah members were set to hold Saturday their first leadership election for 20 years, hoping to breathe new life into the secular Palestinian party weakened by infighting, mismanagement and a trouncing by the Islamist Hamas movement.

Delegates to the party's congress in the West Bank city of Bethlehem will vote to renew the 21-strong Central Committee and the 120-member Revolutionary Council, Fatah's governing bodies.

Voting was initially scheduled for Friday but was postponed by a day because of the large number of party members registering as candidates.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who took over as party chief after the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, is certain to retain his position, with Fatah officials describing him as "the consensus candidate."

But there is no such certainty for the other veteran party leaders.

"A strong wind of change is blowing over the congress. In my view, at least half the current members of the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council will be replaced," a delegate said, asking not to be named.

Among those seen as leading candidates are Marwan Barghuthi, the party's West Bank secretary-general who is held in an Israeli prison, former preventive security chief Jibril Rajub and Mohammed Dahlan, once Fatah's strongman in the Gaza Strip.

There are strong hopes among the 2,000 delegates that some of the old guard often accused of corruption will make way for younger members of the party founded by iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the late 1950s.

"At the end of the congress, Fatah will have new leadership where the young generation will play a key role," prominent Fatah member Nabil Shaath wrote in the congress's Website.

"This will reinvigorate the movement and strengthen its legitimacy."

Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, exercised undivided power among Palestinians before it was lost heavily to Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary election.

Longstanding Hamas-Fatah tensions boiled over in June 2007 when the Islamists seized control of Gaza after a week of deadly street clashes, confining Abbas's power base to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

All Fatah party members will be allowed to vote in person or by proxy, including dozens who were prevented from leaving the Gaza Strip by Hamas, Shaath said.

Hamas briefly detained a number of senior Fatah members in Gaza on Friday, Fatah said.

Several local Fatah leaders, including Ibrahim Abu al-Naja, Zakaria al-Agha and Abdallah Abu Samhadana were arrested and questioned, an official said. They were released several hours later.

Infighting and corruption allegations have further weakened Fatah over the years.

Opening the congress, the first in 20 years, Abbas on Tuesday admitted a litany of past errors by the party, and called for "a new start."

But the next day was marked by acrimonious rows as delegates demanded accountability from the party leadership.

Hundreds of delegates protested the lack of administrative and financial accounting since the last congress in 1989 and rejected explanations that this was contained in Abbas's opening speech.

On Thursday, delegates voted unanimously to "attribute to Israel, as an occupying power, full responsibility for the assassination of the martyr Yasser Arafat."

The Nobel Peace Prize winner who led the struggle for Palestinian statehood for nearly four decades died in a French military hospital on November 11, 2004 after being airlifted from his headquarters in the West Bank.

At the time of his death at the age of 75, Palestinian officials charged he had been poisoned by longtime foe Israel, but an inconclusive Palestinian investigation in 2005 ruled out cancer, AIDS or poisoning.