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Fatah re-elects Abbas at first congress in seven years

Some analysts see the congress as an attempt by Abbas to marginalise longtime rival Mohammed Dahlan, currently in exile in the UAE
Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech during a rally marking the 12th anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on 10 November, 2016 (Reuters)

Mahmoud Abbas was re-elected as president of the Fatah party at the opening of its first congress in seven years on Tuesday as the 81-year-old Palestinian leader seeks to fend off opponents.

He stood unopposed for the post in a vote that was largely a formality.

The election of members of Fatah's parliament and its central committee will begin on Friday, signalling the direction the oldest Palestinian party will take at a time when Abbas is weakened by his own unpopularity and internal dissent.

Following his re-election Abbas will give an address on Tuesday evening. Some 1,400 delegates are expected.

While the ageing leader has said he has no intention of stepping aside anytime soon, talk of who will eventually succeed him as Palestinian president has intensified. He has not publicly designated a successor.

Some analysts see the congress as an attempt by Abbas to marginalise political opponents, including longtime rival Mohammed Dahlan, currently in exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Reform on the agenda

Jibril Rajoub, a former intelligence chief, current head of the Palestinian Football Association and Fatah central committee member, said it will also provide an opportunity to update the party's structures.

"The system from the 1960s no longer works in 2016," he told AFP.

"We have to take into account the current circumstances. The current system was created when we were in the diaspora and we are now on national soil. It was put in place at a revolutionary stage. Now we have a state."

Speaking to MEE, he dismissed the idea of Dahlan succeeding Abbas: “Dahlan is past. He has no place in the movement."

Dahlan’s supporters, including Jihad Tomalaih MP and Jamal Jaghoub, Fatah leader in Qalandia refugee camp, confirmed to MEE that followers of the exiled politician are planning to hold a 2,000-strong rally in Cairo in the near future to voice their criticism of President Abbas and their opposition to his policies.

Saeb Erekat, Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary general and Fatah central committee member, said the congress will allow the party to "choose leaders for the next stage."

Rajoub added: “This congress is taking place in a crucial moment in the history of the Palestinian people, we have to discuss our aspirations, our concerns, and challenges.

“We have to build a strategy, consolidating the movement, and achieving national unity.”

Stalled peace efforts

But the congress also comes at a difficult time for the push to create a Palestinian state, with the cause having been overshadowed by other crises in the region.

The incoming Donald Trump administration in the United States has also signalled its policies will be far more favourable to Israel, likely vetoing UN Security Council resolutions on the Palestine-Israel issue it opposes.

Peace efforts have been at a complete standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed in April 2014.

Israel is concerned that US President Barack Obama may take some sort of action over the conflict before he leaves office in January, but his intentions remain unclear.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times on Tuesday, former US president Jimmy Carter called on Obama to recognise a Palestinian state before his term is up.

Gaza delegates blocked

The congress also comes with Fatah and its Islamist rival Hamas, in power in the Gaza Strip, still deeply divided. Fatah dominates the Palestinian Authority, which runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel has prevented 80 Fatah members in Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade, from attending the conference, said party spokesman Mahmud Abu al-Hija.

Ninety members from Lebanon and Syria arrived over the past few days.

Israeli authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Israel controls all borders of the Palestinian territories apart from the Gaza-Egypt frontier.

Abu al-Hija said an objective of the congress, due to run for at least five days, is to determine how to act in the face of stalled peace negotiations.

Peace initiatives being promoted by France and Arab nations will be discussed, as will the possibility of introducing a UN Security Council resolution against Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

Fatah is the main component of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, created in 1964 in Jerusalem, which brought together the main Palestinian nationalist movements of that time.